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Hunger Strike Breaks Out at Guantánamo

by Tim Golden

A new, long-term hunger strike has broken out at the American detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, with more than a dozen detainees subjecting themselves to daily force-feeding to protest their treatment, military officials and lawyers for the detainees said.Lawyers for several hunger strikers said their clients' actions were driven by harsh conditions in a new maximum security complex to which about 160 prisoners have been moved since December.

The 13 detainees now on hunger strikes is the highest number to endure the force-feeding regimen on an extended basis since early 2006, when the military broke a long-running strike with a new policy of strapping prisoners into "restraint chairs" while they are fed by plastic tubes inserted through their nostrils.

The hunger strikers are now monitored so closely the they have virtually no chance to starve themselves. Yet their persistence underscores how the struggle between detainees and guards at Guantánamo has continued even as the military has tightened its control.

"We don't have any rights here, even after your Supreme Court said we had rights," one hunger striker, Majid al-Joudi, told a military physician, according to medical records released recently under a federal court order. "If the policy does not change, you will see a big increase in fasting."

A military spokesman at Guantánamo, Cmdr. Robert Durand of the Navy, played down the significance of the current hunger strike, describing the prisoners' complaints as "propaganda."

Newly released Pentagon documents show that during earlier hunger strikes, before the use of restraint chairs, some detainees suffered sharp weight losses. A handful of those prisoners lost more than 30 pounds in a matter of weeks, the records show. By comparison, the current hunger strike - in which 12 of the 13 were being force-fed as of Friday - seems almost symbolic.

For instance, the medical records for Mr. Joudi, a 36-year-old Saudi, show that when he was hospitalized on Feb. 10, he had been fasting for 31 days and had lost more than 15 percent of his body weight.

By the time he was transferred a few days later to a "feeding block" where hard-core hunger strikers are segregated from other prisoners, his condition had stabilized and his weight was nearly back to its ideal level for a man his size. (His exact weight gain was not recorded.)

Lawyers for several detainees being held in the new maximum security complex, called Camp 6, compared it to "super-max" prisons in the United States. The major differences, they said, are that the detainees have limited reading material and no television, and that only 10 of the roughly 385 men at Guantánamo have been charged.

The Camp 6 inmates are generally locked in their 8-by-10-foot cells for at least 22 hours a day, emerging only to exercise in small wire cages and shower. Besides those exercise periods, they can talk with other prisoners only by shouting through food slots in the steel doors of their cells.

"My wish is to die," one reported hunger striker in the camp, Adnan Farhan Abdullatif, a 27-year old Yemeni, told his lawyer on Feb. 27, according to recently declassified notes of the meeting. "We are living in a dying situation."

Commander Durand, the Guantánamo spokesman, dismissed such accounts as part of an effort by the prisoners and their lawyers to discredit the detention mission. He described new unit as much more comfortable than the detainees' previous quarters, and he denied that they suffer any greater sense of isolation in the new cellblocks.

"Anytime something changes, people will seize on that as an opportunity to say that things are getting worse," he said. "This was designed to improve living conditions, and we think it has."

Camp 6 was originally designed as a modern, medium-security prison complex for up to 200 inmates, with common areas where they could gather for meals and a large, fenced-in athletic field where they might jog or play soccer outside the high, concrete walls.

But after a riot last May and the suicides of three prisoners in June, the unit was retrofitted to limit the detainees' freedom of movement and reduce the risk that they might hurt themselves or attack guards, military officials said.

Senior officials expressed concern in interviews about how prisoners would react to the greater isolation in Camp 6. Most had been held on makeshift blocks of wire-mesh cells that - while often hot, noisy and lacking privacy - allowed them to communicate easily, pray together and even pass written messages.

Guantánamo's other maximum-security unit, Camp 5, has pods of cells that face each other across a short hallway, allowing the roughly 100 detainees there to converse fairly easily. In Camp 6, the prisoners can see one another from their cells only when one of them is being moved. At other times, they look out on the stainless-steel picnic tables in the common areas they are not allowed to use.

Lawyers for half a dozen Camp 6 detainees said their clients were uniformly despondent about the move even though, as military officials note, the new cells are 27 square feet larger than the old ones and have air-conditioning, nicer toilets and sinks, and a small desk anchored to the wall.

"They're just sitting on a powder keg down there," said one lawyer, Sabin Willett, who, like others, described an atmosphere of growing desperation among the prisoners. "You're going to have an insane asylum."

Lawyers who recently visited Guantánamo said the detainees reported higher number of hunger strikers than the military did - perhaps 40 or more. Military officials said there are sometimes "stealth hunger strikers," who pretend to eat or surreptitiously vomit after eating, but they dismissed the detainees' estimates as exaggerations.

Because reporters are prevented from speaking with detainees or visiting most of the cellblocks they occupy, it is impossible to verify the accounts of either side.

Hunger strikes have been part of life at Guantánamo almost since the detention center opened in January 2002.

They reached a peak in September 2005, when more than 130 detainees were classified as hunger strikers, having refused at least nine consecutive meals, military records show. As the strikes persisted, some detainees being force-fed continued to lose weight by vomiting or siphoning out their stomachs with the feedings tubes. But by early February 2002, shortly after the military began using restraint chairs during the forced feedings, the number of hunger strikers plunged to three.

The number of hunger strikers shot up briefly to 86 last May after three detainees attempted suicide and a riot broke out as the guards searched for contraband. Yet even then, no more than seven strikers endured the restraint chair regimen.

Three long-term hunger strikers hung themselves on June 10. After July, no more than three detainees were subjected to extended forced-feeding.

But that number began to grow again as detainees were moved into Camp 6 in December. By mid-March, the number of hunger strikers reached 17. And for the first time, as many as 15 detainees continued with the strikes despite being force-fed in the restraint chairs.

In an interview as the move began in December, the commander of the military guard force, Col. Wade Dennis, suggested that he would be unperturbed by such protests: "If they want to do that, hook it up," he said of the restraint-chair feeding system.

Military officials have described the restraint-chair regimen as unpleasant but necessary. They originally said prisoners needed to be restrained while digesting, so they could not purge what they were fed.

Now, the rationale has changed: The restraints are generally applied "for safety of the detainee and medical staff," records show, and they are kept on for as little as 15 minutes at a time, rather than the two hours commonly used before. Afterwards, the prisoners are moved to a "dry room," and monitored to make sure they do not vomit.

Even so, some detainees describe the experience as painful, even gruesome.

One Sudanese detainee, Sami al Hajj, a 38-year-old former cameraman for the Arab television network Al Jazeera, described feeling at one point that he could not bear the tube for another instant. "I said I would begin to scream unless they took it out," he wrote in a recent diary entry given to his lawyer. "They finally did."

Military officials said they have segregated the hunger strikers from other detainees to impede their recruitment of others. The authorities have also continued to isolate at least two detainees considered leaders among the prisoners, and lawyers for the men complained that their clients' mental health is deteriorating.

"The man has been in segregation - virtual isolation - for over nine months," said Stephen H. Oleskey, who represents Saber Lahmar, an Algerian religious scholar whom military officials accused of propagating a religious legal ruling that was linked to the suicides. "Physically and emotionally, he's collapsing. We think this punishment does exceed what the law allows, and that he won't survive."

Military officials said Mr. Lahmar receives adequate medical attention.

Margot Williams and William Glaberson contributed reporting.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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