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Explainer: What's Behind The Hunger Strike At Guantanamo Bay?

There are currently 166 prisoners still being held at the United States' Guantanamo Bay military facility in Cuba. (file photo)
There are currently 166 prisoners still being held at the United States' Guantanamo Bay military facility in Cuba. (file photo)
WASHINGTON, April 4, 2013 (RFE/RL) -- News that many of the detainees at Guantanamo have gone on hunger strike has refocused attention on the U.S.-run detention facility. RFE/RL looks at the issues surounding the prisoners' actions.

What triggered the hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and when did it start?

In early February, the camp commander resumed a 2006-era policy of searching prisoners’ Korans for possible contraband. A few inmates began refusing meals to protest what they considered desecration. More men have joined in the weeks since.

Washington-based lawyer David H. Remes represents 15 detainees, at least six of whom are on hunger strike. He visited the detention facility a few weeks ago and spoke by phone with two of his clients on March 29.

"They told me that the hunger strike is still widespread," he says. "According to them and other detainees, virtually everyone in Camp 6, which is the most-populous camp in the prison, has been hunger striking and the men are more determined than ever to continue until they achieve their goal, even if it means starving themselves to death."

Remes suggests that some of the men would resume eating if the Koran searches ended, but not all.

"Because the strike has persisted so long, the goals have broadened beyond the original goal – which was to stop the searches of the Koran," he says. "And now [it] is a protest against the fact that they’re being held indefinitely, without charge, and with no end in sight."

Who is still at the facility?

There are 166 prisoners still behind bars, 89 of whom are Yemeni. Of those 166, 86 have been cleared by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to be transferred to their home countries or to a third country. Forty-six are facing indefinite detention because U.S. rules on evidence and procedure prevent charges from being brought and they’re considered too dangerous to release.

Six inmates are in an active trial phase, and the remaining few are part of ongoing investigations.

How have U.S. officials responded?

The White House says it is "closely monitoring" the situation. There are discrepancies about the number of prisoners on hunger strike. The Pentagon said on April 1 that 39 prisoners are consistently refusing food, while lawyers for inmates say the number is closer to 130.

What is clear is that Guantanamo authorities are force feeding at least 11 of the hunger strikers, according to Pentagon spokesman Army Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale.

"The bottom line is that we will not allow a detainee to harm himself," he says. "We monitor their conditions daily and, if necessary, according to the guidelines set up by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, internally feed them."

Why are they allowed to force-feed prisoners?

The U.S. military’s practice of force-feeding detainees by strapping them into a restraint chair, pushing a tube up their nose, down their throat, and into their stomach to deliver liquid nutrition is controversial and has been challenged by lawyers and rights activists as illegal and even a form of torture.

The practice has been unsuccessfully challenged in U.S. courts as a violation of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, which bans cruel or degrading treatment.

The UN Human Rights Commission considers force-feeding at Guantanamo a form of torture, and the World Medical Association prohibits its physicians from participating in force-feeding.

The military says force-feeding saves lives and is a form of "medical intervention."

What about the strikers who aren’t being force-fed?


Current Guantanamo Detainees
(By Citizenship)

Yemen 89
Afghanistan 19
Saudi Arabia 12
Algeria 7
Tunisia 6
China 5
Libya 5
Pakistan 5
Kuwait 3
Sudan 3
Syria 3
Uzbekistan 2
West Bank 2
Malaysia 2
Mauritania 2
Morocco 2
Canada 1
Egypt 1
Gaza 1
Indonesia 1
Iraq 1
Kenya 1
Lebanon 1
Russia 1
Somalia 1
Tajikistan 1
United Arab Emirates 1
*Source: Based on original files analyzed and published by "The Guardian"

According to Remes, his clients tell him that guards are using a variety of what he calls "brutal methods" to break the strike.

"They are denying men in Camp 6 bottled water and requiring them to drink tap water," he says. "Safe as the military says the tap water is, one of my clients ran water from the tap over a piece of tissue paper and it turned yellow. The doctors tell them not to drink from the tap. The authorities are manipulating the temperature in the cells so that, for example, men have to live in cells where the temperature is [17 degrees Celsius], which would be cold for anybody -- but these guys are not only weak and thin, but all they have are cotton clothes. So it’s pretty miserable."

The Pentagon's Breasseale calls that characterization "utterly untrue."

"The guard force there is probably the most highly scrutinized group of service members on the planet and even the implication that [detainees] are being treated in anything but the most professional manner is outrageous and does not stand up to even a blushing glance of intellectual scrutiny," he says.

"These accusations are part of a concerted information operation campaign waged by the detainees through their advocates by proxy. And that’s all I’ve really got to say on any of these absurdities about water or temperature or any of the other nonsensical assertions."

Why is the Guantanamo detention facility still open?

President Obama signed an order on his first day as president to close the facility within one year. But his plan hit a road block when a military judge rejected a Justice Department attempt to try detainees in a civilian court.

The U.S. Senate then prohibited the use of public funds to transfer or release any prisoners, and two years later – after Obama ordered a U.S. maximum security prison to prepare to receive Guantanamo inmates -- Congress blocked that as well.

"The men are at their wit’s end," says Remes. "They say to me and other defense counsel, 'Look, we’re going to get out of here one way or the other. We’re either going to be released or we’re going to go out in a box.' You have that level of desperation."

On March 27, a White House spokesman said Obama "remains committed to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay."

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