Guantánamo Prisoners Go on Hunger Strike
By Neil A. Lewis
WASHINGTON, Sept. 17 – A hunger strike at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay has unsettled senior commanders there and produced the most serious challenge yet to the military’s effort to manage the detention of hundreds of terrorism suspects, lawyers and officials say.
As many as 200 prisoners – more than a third of the camp – have refused food in recent weeks to protest conditions and prolonged confinement without trial, according to the accounts of lawyers who represent them. While military officials put the number of those participating at 105, they acknowledge that 20 of them, whose health and survival are being threatened, are being kept at the camp’s hospital and fed through nasal tubes and sometimes given fluids intravenously.
The military authorities were so concerned about ending a previous strike this summer that they allowed the establishment of a six-member prisoners’ grievance committee, lawyers said. The committee, a sharp departure from past practice in which camp authorities refused to cede any control or role to the detainees, was quickly ended, the lawyers say.
Maj. Jeffrey J. Weir, a spokesman at the base, said that the prisoners who are being fed at the hospital are generally not strapped to their beds and gurneys but are in handcuffs and leg restraints. A 21st prisoner at the hospital is voluntarily accepting liquid food.
Major Weir said the prisoners usually accept the nasal tubes passively because they know they will be restrained and fed forcibly if necessary. “We will not let them starve themselves to the point of causing harm to themselves,” he said, describing the process as “assisted feeding” rather than force-feeding. On at least one occasion, he said, a prisoner was restrained and forcibly fed.
One law enforcement official who has been fully briefed on the events at Guantánamo said senior military officials had grown increasingly worried about their capability to control the situation. A senior military official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the situation as greatly troublesome for the camp’s authorities and said they had tried several ways to end the hunger strike, without success.
The comments of the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, probably because their accounts conflict with the more positive descriptions in official military accounts, generally mirrored the statements of lawyers for the detainees, who have received their information from face-to-face interviews with their clients.
Clive Stafford Smith, a British lawyer for several of the detainees, said he was visiting some of his clients in August when the most recent strike began. He said that a detainee, Omar Deghayes, told him that the strike was largely to protest their long imprisonment without being charged with any crime as well as the conditions of their confinement.
He said that Mr. Deghayes, a Libyan who has lived in London, told him: “Look, I’m dying a slow death in this place as it is. I don’t have any hope of fair treatment, so what have I got to lose?”
Mr. Stafford Smith said an earlier hunger strike ended on July 28 after the camp authorities agreed to improve conditions.
He said that one inmate, Shaker Aamer, negotiated the end to that hunger strike with a camp official he identified as Col. Michael Bumgarner, who said he had been authorized to address some of the prisoners’ grievances. Mr. Stafford Smith, who represents Mr. Aamer, said his client told him that Colonel Bumgarner said he would ensure that the detainees would thereafter be treated “in accordance with the Geneva Accords.” That included, Mr. Stafford Smith said, the establishment of the six-member committee to represent the prisoners in talks with the authorities. Such representative committees are called for in the Geneva Conventions, although they had not been formed at Guantánamo. The Bush administration has said that while the Guantánamo detainees are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, they are generally treated by its standards.
Mr. Stafford Smith said the committee only functioned for a few days before authorities disbanded it.
Major Weir disputed Mr. Stafford Smith’s description of a prisoners’ grievance committee. “There have been no meetings with detainees refusing to eat,” he said in a written statement in response to a question about the existence of such a committee. He said that commanders and soldiers interact with the prisoners daily and that they are also made aware of prisoners’ needs and complaints from representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He declined to elaborate further.
Mr. Stafford Smith said the current strike began after some detainees reported witnessing the abuse of a prisoner, Hisham Sliti, when he returned to his cell after an interrogation session. He said that Mr. Deghayes told him that he had also seen a guard throw Mr. Sliti’s copy of the Koran onto a cell floor. The military has acknowledged that isolated incidents of abuse of the Koran have caused some unrest among detainees, but authorities said that they investigate any such reports and discipline any offenders.
Kristine Huskey, a lawyer with Shearman & Sterling in Washington who returned from visiting Guantánamo last week, said that three of the Kuwaitis she represents in federal court were among the hunger strikers. She said she could not discuss everything she learned because of an agreement with the military that lawyers may not disclose information from their visits until the authorities review their notes for classified information. Nonetheless, she said, “The situation in the camp itself is very bad,” adding that the hunger strike was “far more widespread than the government is letting on.”
She also said that the camp authorities seemed greatly harried as they tried to cope with the situation.
The comments by Mr. Stafford Smith and Ms. Huskey demonstrate the vast changes in the military’s task since federal courts have become involved in cases involving detainees and ordered the military to allow defense lawyers to travel to Guantánamo. Before the advent of lawyer visits, the military had total control over information from Guantánamo. There is now general acknowledgment that there were hunger strikes in 2002 and 2003, but they were largely unknown at the time. The only parties who had solid information when the strikes were occurring were the military authorities and Red Cross officials, who had pledged not to reveal what they learned in their visits in exchange for continued access.
The discrepancy between the military’s figures for participation in the strike and those of the lawyers may partly be explained by their using different definitions. Major Weir said a detainee was deemed to be on strike if he refused nine consecutive meals. Gitanjali Guiterrez, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York group that issued a recent report on hunger strikes at Guantánamo, said that more than 200 detainees have said they have participated in the strike, and that could mean they ate only some meals or consumed only beverages.
Ms. Huskey said that the government tried to prevent lawyers from her firm from visiting their clients in recent weeks. She said officials had to be pressed to allow the visits by Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the Federal District Court in Washington in at least three telephone conferences.
Ms. Huskey and her colleagues filed a motion before Judge Kollar-Kotelly on Aug. 29 asking her to order the government to allow them to visit their clients at Guantánamo who they believed were involved in the hunger strike.
“The judge essentially said they weren’t being accommodating enough, and she pressed them to explain why we couldn’t go,” Ms. Huskey said. “When they said they didn’t know if our clients were involved in the hunger strike, she asked them to find out.”
Ms. Huskey said that when the government lawyers later reported that three of the firm’s clients were involved, Judge Kollar-Kotelly said the lawyers should at least be able to visit those detainees.
“The government then became more accommodating,” she said.