Afghans Wage Hunger Strike In Ireland

Some of 41 failed Afghan asylum seekers sit in St. Patricks Cathedral, Dublin, Monday May 15, 2006 where they vow to starve themselves to death unless they are allowed to remain in Ireland despite Justice Minister Michael McDowell's insistence that they cannot stay. The men began refusing food and water at St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. (AP Photo/Julien Behal/PA) UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO ARCHIVE
AP Photo
Irish police prevented two protesters from rejoining about 40 Afghan asylum-seekers, who have mounted a nearly weeklong hunger strike in a landmark Dublin cathedral and threatened to kill themselves if officers move in.

For the first time since the standoff began last Sunday in St. Patrick's Cathedral, police blocked two protesters, who had been hospitalized, from re-entering the 13th-century building to rejoin their comrades.

Earlier in the week, police permitted about 10 protesters to receive medical treatment, chiefly for dehydration, and return to their hunger strike.

Police surrounded the cathedral Friday, but made no effort to arrest any of the protesters, who insist they all would prefer to starve to death than be sent back to Afghanistan.

Some say they are linked to the former Taliban government overthrown by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, while others say their families have suffered at the hands of Taliban insurgents in the years of instability since. All cite fears they could be tortured or killed, but have refused to discuss specifics in public.

Health authorities secured a court order declaring the protest's eight 17-year-old members to be minors whose safety must be guaranteed by the state. But police opted not to move in when the teenagers warned they had armed themselves with razors and makeshift ropes which they would use to cut their wrists or hang themselves.

Four of the teens sent cell-phone photographs, picturing themselves wearing bright red ropes around their necks, to supporters outside the cathedral. Officials of the Church of Ireland, the Anglican-affiliated denomination that owns St. Patrick's, said the ropes appeared to have been made from upholstery taken from the cathedral's handmade furniture.

Several protesters also positioned themselves in the cathedral's 60-foot-high organ loft and said they would jump off if police approached.

So police kept their distance Saturday, and blocked two protesters who had left the cathedral Friday for hospital treatment. One was Samad Rhimi, a 17-year-old who had cut himself with a razor. The other was Sultan Kabir Chakari, a 45-year-old former Foreign Ministry official in the Taliban government.

Chakari, who is blind and the oldest hunger-striker, has been hospitalized twice during the protest. On Thursday, in between hospitalizations, he said an Irish doctor had told him he was suffering from advanced diabetes and liver problems and could die within 10 days if he didn't eat.

The protesters, who began their protest by refusing liquids as well as food, said Saturday they all had decided to stop drinking again. Refusing to drink can mean death within days, whereas hunger-strikers can live for at least two months.

Justice Department immigration officials insist the hunger-strikers are wrong on every point of their protest. They say Ireland hasn't even been deporting Afghans directly back to their homeland, only to other EU countries through which the Afghans were smuggled to Ireland.

Under European law, refugees are required to claim asylum in the first EU country they enter, which, by definition, excludes Ireland because it has no direct travel links to Afghanistan. The protesters say they all were smuggled through other European countries, including Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

Justice Minister Michael McDowell says none of the protesters is facing a deportation order. He says, by contrast, two of the protesters already have won their cases, with one winning refugee status, the other receiving the right to remain in Ireland because he has fathered an Irish-born child.

McDowell said police would bring the illegal occupation of the cathedral to an end, but declined to discuss what tactics were likely to be used.

On Wednesday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' representative in Ireland, Manuel Jordao, failed to persuade the protesters that Ireland's asylum-application process was fair. He noted that more than 4 million Afghans worldwide had been legally deported since 2002 back to their homeland, and that Afghans had no automatic right to claim asylum because of their nationality.