A hunger strike among detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who have been imprisoned by the United States military without trial – some for more than a decade – is continuing to grow, although there is sharp disagreement between the military and lawyers for the detainees about how many are participating.
As of Monday morning, 28 of the 166 prisoners had refused enough continuous meals to be deemed hunger strikers in the official count, and 10 of them were being force fed, said a military spokesman, Capt. Robert Durand. That was up from 26 hunger strikers and 8 who were being force fed on Friday, according to the military's count. Three detainees have been hospitalized for dehydration, Captain Durand added.
Lawyers for detainees, however, citing declassified notes of conversations with their clients in person and by phone, claim that the military's numbers are significantly undercounting the actual level of participation. Their clients have told them that an overwhelming majority of the detainees in Camps Five and Six – where low-level suspects who are not facing any charges before a military commission, the bulk of the inmate population, are being held – have been refusing to eat for weeks, they said.
Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York and a lawyer for several Guantánamo prisoners, said he spoke by telephone on Friday with two clients who are participating – Moath Hamza Ahmed al-Alwi, a Yemeni held in Camp Six, where detainees who comply with rules live in communal housing; and Abd al-Hadi Omar Mahmoud Faraj, a Syrian held in Camp Five, where noncompliant detainees live in individual cells.
Mr. Kassem said each reported having lost about 30 pounds. They said that other than a few elderly prisoners, Mr. Kassem said, "no one is accepting food from prison authorities."
He added: "Prisoners are not eating anything, surviving only on water. Any supplies left on cellblocks and with prisoners have now been exhausted."
It is not clear how to reconcile the difference in the accounts of how many detainees are participating in the hunger strike. The military has said it uses criteria developed by the civilian Bureau of Prisons, under which an inmate must generally refuse to eat for more than three days in a row to count.
The underlying reasons for the strike are in dispute. Lawyers for detainees say their clients are citing a systematic cell search by guards in early February that included an inspection of Korans for contraband. Some lawyers have said their clients reported that guards touched the Korans, which they consider religious desecration.
The military says that those claims are false and that a Muslim interpreter leafed through the books while guards watched, following longstanding procedure. Mr. Faraj's account, as provided by Mr. Kassem, said that guards had gathered the books and that an interpreter searched them while guards looked "over his shoulder," but he added that detainees want the Koran to be exempt from searches entirely.
While the military says its procedures are unchanged, there are some indications that guards may have recently started enforcing rules more strictly. Mr. Kassem said his clients reported that the search also included "confiscations from cells of personal papers and items, privileged attorney-client correspondence, medically prescribed items, prescription eyeglasses and even some prisoners' prayer rugs."
Several lawyers said their clients reported that detainees had offered to give up Korans rather than having them searched.
Those accounts were similar to what was described by Faiz Mohammed Ahmed al-Kandari, a Kuwaiti detainee, in a conversation with Carlos Warner, a lawyer who visited Guantánamo last week. Mr. Warner's notes of the talk described Mr. Kandari as "gaunt" and "too weak to stand," and relayed that his client claimed that "all men are striking" and refusing prescribed medication, except for two elderly detainees in Camp Six.
Lawyers for detainees and military officials agree that waning hopes for any release among low-level prisoners are an underlying cause of the unrest. Congress has placed restrictions on further transfers, nearly halting any departures even though about half of the remaining inmates were cleared for release years ago. The bulk of the low-level detainees are Yemenis.
Because it now appears that the prison will remain open indefinitely, the United States Southern Command, which overseas Guantánamo, has requested nearly $200 million to renovate facilities that were built to be temporary and are now deteriorating, including barracks and a meal hall for the guards. The request includes $49 million for a new prison for "special" detainees – apparently the small number of "high value" prisoners formerly held by the Central Intelligence Agency.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.