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Military: Guantanamo hunger strike recedes by 25 percent

NEW YORK With the advent of Ramadan and the opportunity to escape solitary confinement, the number of detainees participating in a five-month-old hunger strike at the American war on terror prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has shrunk by 25 percent over the past five days, according to the U.S. military.

After a steady climb for 22 weeks up to 106 acknowledged hunger strikers as of last Wednesday, July 10, there were only to 81 detainees refusing all meals as of Sunday, said Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, a base spokesman.

"We can't speculate why they are choosing to come off hunger strike. It may be because of Ramadan or because they feel they've gotten their message across," House told CBS News.

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan, during which some observant Muslims do not eat during daylight hours, began last week.

Guantanamo detainees started a hunger strike in February to oppose the confiscation of their personal items and mishandling of Korans during cell searches. The protest grew over indefinite detention without charges, a position most of the prison's 166 detainees are in. .

The military counts a detainee as a hunger striker when he has skipped meals for at least three days and lost a certain amount of body weight.

"We have made no changes in our criteria. Many detainees who were on hunger strike are now eating, and have eaten enough consecutive meals to remove the status as hunger striker," Navy Captain Robert Durand told CBS News, Guantanamo's director of public affairs.

As of Sunday, 45 detainees had lost enough weight to qualify for force feedings of Ensure liquid nutrients through a tube pushed up their noses and down their throats while they are strapped to a chair. During Ramadan, tube feedings are happening only after sunset and before sunrise.

House said only one-third of the detainees qualified for tube feedings are being subjected to them, while two-thirds are drinking cans of Ensure or eating a meal or enough calories to count as meal.

"Some detainees are taking a token amount of food as part of the traditional breaking of the fast at the end of each day in Ramadan, so that is now conveniently allowing them to be counted as not striking," said Clive Stafford Smith, a London-based attorney whose organization, Reprieve, represents Guantanamo detainees.

"You can't trust the military's numbers," said Carlos Warner, an Ohio federal defenders who also represents Guantanamo detainees. "I have no indication the strike is ending."

The number of hunger strikers counted by the military doubled back in April following a military raid on Guantanamo's Camp 6, where a majority of detainees had resided in a communal jail setting with their cells unlocked during the day. After the raid, most detainees were relegated to solitary confinement.

Now, about 100 detainees are being held in a communal setting in Camp 6 and other camps, House and Durand said.

"As a condition of going into communal, they must agree not to hunger strike. If they chose to hunger strike, for their own safety and well being, we will put them in a single cell," House said.

"With compliance, detainees can have up to 18 hours of communal time per day. Detainees now lock down at night, as they do in nearly every detention facility," Durand said.

There are still about 140 military personnel at the base devoted to monitoring and caring for the hunger strikers.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been able to visit detainees, Amnesty International, and the American Medical Association oppose the force feedings. A federal judge and two U.S. Senators added their voices to the criticism in recent days.

In denying one detainee's motion in Washington, D.C. federal court to stop the tube feedings, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler nevertheless said, "force-feeding is a painful, degrading, and humiliating process." Judge Kessler ruled she had no jurisdiction to order the force feedings to end, but noted that the president, as commander-in-chief, could.

Democratic U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Dick Durbin of Illinois then wrote President Obama encouraging him to ask the military "to stop conducting such large-scale force feedings." President Obama has stated he does not want any detainees to die, as has the military.

"Our job is to ensure the detainees are well taken care of if they choose to hunger strike," House said.

Underlying the mass protest over indefinite detention is the fact half of the prison population was either cleared for release by an inter-agency task force in 2010 or hail from Yemen, where repatriations were stopped in 2010 due to al Qaeda activity there.

In May, the president announced he would lift the ban on transfers to Yemen and would appoint a new envoy to negotiate repatriations overseas. That envoy, Clifford Sloan, visited Guantanamo for the first time on July 2.

"President Obama should do as he promised four years ago -- free the cleared prisoners and close the prison," detainee attorney Smith said. Of the hunger strike, Smith added, "Nobody could imagine that all the prisoners could keep this up forever."

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