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US rejects deal to end long Gitmo hunger strike

Associated Press
by Ben Fox
March 18, 2009

The U.S. has rejected a Guantanamo prisoner's proposal to end his 3 1/2-year hunger strike in exchange for easing his conditions at the American prison in Cuba, saying such a deal would undermine security and encourage similar protests.

A federal judge in Washington had urged U.S. authorities to consider the proposed deal in the case of Ahmed Zuhair, a Saudi prisoner who has refused to eat since the summer of 2005 and is force-fed a liquid nutrient mix to keep him alive.

The government responded with a court filing Tuesday, rejecting Zuhair's request to be moved from the high-security Camp 6 to the medium-security Camp 4, where prisoners live in a communal dorm-like setting, spend up to 20 hours a day outside and have other privileges.

Army Col. Bruce Vargo, the officer in charge of prison operations at Guantanamo, said in court papers that Zuhair's history of infractions makes him ineligible for Camp 4 and that agreeing to transfer him would create a "very real risk" that other prisoners will seek similar deals.

"The potential impact on Guantanamo's security and the threats to the safety of Guantanamo's staff and camp population cannot be overstated," Vargo said.

Zuhair has had 80 disciplinary infractions over the past four months and the military has had to use a "forced cell extraction team" to remove him from his cell so he could be strapped into a special restraint chair and force-fed, he said.

The prisoner, who was recently moved to the detention center hospital for observation, weighs about 114 pounds but is in "good condition," according to the military. The U.S. says the 5-foot-5 prisoner weighed about 137 pounds in August 2008.

His attorney, Ramzi Kassem, criticized the military's reasoning for not moving his client.

"They want to pressure Ahmed to break his hunger strike by continuing to detain him in the excessively harsh environment of Camp 6," Kassem said. "Moving Ahmed to Camp 4 to encourage him to cease striking would rob ... prison authorities of the sick victory of breaking him."

Lawyers for detainees have repeatedly complained that conditions in Camp 6, where prisoners are kept most of the day in solid-wall cells, are unnecessarily harsh. U.S. officials say the criticism is exaggerated but have taken steps to improve conditions in recent months.

There are currently 34 prisoners on hunger strike at Guantanamo, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, spokesman for the detention center.

Zuhair, who was captured in Pakistan, has been held at Guantanamo since June 2002. He has not been charged with a crime, although U.S. authorities allege that he trained with the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and was a member of an Islamic fighting group in Bosnia in the mid-1990s.

His lawyer denies the allegations and has asked the courts to order his release.

The U.S. holds about 240 men at Guantanamo on suspicion of terrorism or links to al-Qaida and the Taliban, but the government is seeking to empty the prison to comply with President Barack Obama's order to close it within a year.

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