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Guantanamo prisoners face Ramadan fasting

The Bellingham Herald
by Carol Rosenberg
September 16, 2011


With the vast majority of the prisoners at Guantánamo now marking their 10th Ramadan in a row behind the razor wire, the military is providing food around the clock for both the faithful honoring the dawn-to-dusk fast and those Muslim captives who choose to ignore it.

A prison camp spokeswoman said the U.S. military command instituted the night-and-day food distribution last year to make it easier for the captives who chose to shun the fasting ritual. Guards then tracked the results to discover that, in the course of the month, more than half the camp ignored Islam’s obligation to fast — a figure those who work with the captives find hard to fathom.

“The average fasting percentage of the detainee population for Ramadan in 2010 was 55 percent,” said Navy Cmdr. Tamsen Reese in response to a question from The Miami Herald. “The percentage dropped after the beginning, but rose at the end of Ramadan,” when Muslims celebrate the feast called Eid al Fitr.

The result suggests that some of the 171 captives have lost faith after a decade in captivity — a surprising turnabout from earlier years, when military commanders reported near-perfect compliance and prisoners abstained from food and drink during daylight hours.

Citing Islamic sensitivities, the military also shifts to night-time hours during Ramadan its daily forced feeding schedule of captives protesting with hunger strikes.

Twice a day, guards shackle hunger strikers whom doctors consider to be malnourished into a specially designated feeding chair. They immobilize each man’s head and limbs, then a military medical staff member tethers a tube through a captive’s nose into his stomach to pump in nutritional shakes.

Prison camp commanders would not explain why so many captives violated the obligation to fast last year. Visiting reporters and entertainers taken through the camps to tour the infrastructure are forbidden to question the captives.

But several attorneys and other outsiders who are allowed to speak with the detainees doubt that that many Muslim prisoners are non observant.

“Those people need to fast because of their situation,” said Mahmoud Khatib, an Arabic-English translator from Dearborn, Mich., who has for seven years accompanied defense attorneys to conversations with captive clients. “They are in prison, they are struggling and they miss their families. Those days bring them nearer to God.”

Plus, he added, lawyers typically bring treats to the attorney-client meetings and none have agreed to eat them during the daylight hours, or asked the guards’ permission to bring the food back to their cells.

Criminal defense attorney Ahmed Ghappour finds it hard to believe, but offers a different possible explanation. Muslims who are traveling or sick have never been obliged to fast during Ramadan. And, though it’s 10 years later, some of the men may have adopted this interpretation.

“They’re in a state of limbo, forced transfer and imprisonment in a foreign land. They’re away from home with no intention of settling where they are. And they don’t know when they can return,” he said. “In a way, they are traveling.”

Ghappour, a Muslim American who has prayed with Guantánamo clients if a meeting coincided with prayer time, said he hadn’t heard about last year’s developments from the half-dozen men he has seen at Guantánamo since last year. But he doesn’t discount it.

Word of the new night-and-day feeding strategy seeped out of the camps after a catering contractor told a sailor accompanying a visiting reporter from Spain this summer that he would forgo interview opportunities during the holy month to keep pace with the hectic feeding schedule. Usually a central kitchen doles out three different meals a day to at least six different sites at Guantánamo.

For Ramadan, Reese said, the Guantánamo food service was providing four meals and two snacks, with some captives allowed to keep the food in their cellblocks to eat after sunset.

Earlier prison camp publicity has boasted that, during normal times, the kitchens prepared 5,000 calories a day for each captive in an operation that the Obama administration estimates costs $775,000 more per captive a year than it does to confine him in a federal prison. Military medical staff have noted that some captives — not the hunger strikers — are suffering from obesity.

As of Friday, the prison camp reported, about 6 percent of the 171 captives were on hunger strike — a total of 11 men, but not all necessarily sufficiently malnourished to require the twice-daily tube feedings of the over-the-counter nutritional supplement Ensure.

Islamic tradition says the Prophet Mohammed broke his fast with a date, then water, before other Ramadan dishes.

But at Guantanamo captives shackled into a feeding chair for the tube feedings are given a choice of four Ensure flavors — Homemade Vanilla, Strawberries & Cream, Creamy Milk Chocolate and Butter Pecan. A fifth flavor, Coffee Latte, is not on offer.

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CSHRA Note: The enhanced feeding regimen reported in this article is intended to facilitate the violation of Ramadan fasting. As such, it constitutes a violation of the prisoners' right to practice their religion without interference.