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Dispute over hunger strikes at Guantanamo
by Phil Hirschkorn
March 16, 2013

NEW YORK. Attorneys for detainees long-held without charges at the U.S military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, assert that a general hunger strike involving many of the 166 detainees who remain incarcerated there has entered its second month.

But the U.S. military strongly denies that claim, calling it "a fabrication," and instead says only 14 detainees are actively engaged in hunger strikes detrimental to their health.

In a letter of concern sent to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday, a group of 51 detainee attorneys wrote, "at least two dozen men have lost consciousness due to low blood glucose levels." The Pentagon said it was aware of the letter but declined to discuss it.

CBS News has interviewed five attorneys who have heard directly from self-described hunger-striking detainees in the past week either in person or in telephone calls.

David Remes, a Washington-based attorney, visited six detainees at Guantanamo last week who told him they were refusing meals. All reside in Camp Six, the base's largest and least restrictive area, which houses about 130 detainees who share communal space and whose cell doors are unlocked during the day.

According to Remes, as of March 8, when he left Guantanamo, six detainees he represents had refused food for 36 days, skipping 102 meals, and each man said he had lost at least 30 pounds.

"It was quite noticeable," Remes said. "The men I saw were weak, tired, chilled, and had lost a substantial amount of weight."

One of those detainees, Yasin Qassem Muhammad Ismail, from Yemen, who followed up with a phone call to Remes on Wednesday, told the attorney that he now weighed 109 pounds, down from 150.

Moreover, these detainees told Remes during his visit that all but a few inhabitants of Camp Six who were too old or infirm have been refusing food since early February.

However, two Defense Department spokesmen, Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale at the Pentagon and Capt. Robert Durand at the Guantanamo base, denied there is a widespread hunger strike at the military prison.

"That there is any concrete, mass hunger strike -- that is an utter fabrication," Breasseale said. "Some who claim to be hunger striking are in fact eating handfuls of trail mix, nuts, and other food. They are taking in plenty of calories."

The Defense Department spokesmen said only nine detainees had recently skipped enough meals to qualify for hunger-strike monitoring under a "very specific medical determination" covering weight loss and body mass and modeled after U.S.

The Defense Department spokesmen said one of those hunger strikers, plus five other detainees who have conducted hunger strikes on and off for years, are currently being subjected to enteral feeding, or the forcing of liquid nutrients through a tube down their nose while strapped to a chair.

"We will not allow a detainee to harm himself," Breasseale said.

Attorney Remes said none of the six clients he saw, nor eight other detainees he represents, are being force-fed by the military. "They intervene only when the detainee is really, clearly, not too far away from death," he said.

Air Force Lt. Col Barry Wingard, appointed defense counsel for detainee Fayiz Mohammad Ahmad Jamal al-Kandari, from Kuwait, said it appeared Al-Kandari had lost 25 pounds when he saw him in person last week.

"He looks bad. He's a step away from being tubed," Wingard said, referring to the force feedings. Al-Kandari, who resides in Camp Six, has never been charged with a crime despite being held for 11 years. The emir of Kuwait has asked for his return.

"Any hope of getting any kind of justice is vanishing before his eyes," Wingard said.

Two self-described hunger strikers from Yemen represented by Remes -- Hussain Salem Muhammed Almerfedi and Said Muhammad Salih Hatim -- are on a 2010 government list of 56 detainees approved for transfer from Guantanamo.

Remes saw Almerfedi last week but not Hatim. "I was told he was too weak to see me," Remes said.

Remes said their imprisonment for 11 years without charges was an underlying cause of the hunger strikes. "It adds insult to injury that they have been approved for transfer. The reality is no one is leaving; everyone is in indefinite detention."

Attorneys say detainee tensions escalated in the past two months following two events at Guantanamo -- a non-lethal recreation yard shooting and searches of the detainee cells.

On Jan. 2, a Guantanamo guard fired a rubber crowd-dispersal round from a tower into a group of detainees in the fenced-in recreation area of Camp Six.

Defense Department spokesman Breasseale said the single round consisted of 18 blueberry-sized rubber balls and one hit a detainee, but he was not injured. Breasseale said the disturbance began when two detainees tried to climb a fence, and then others began throwing rocks at a guard tower.

One of Remes' clients, Uthman Abd Rahim Muhammad Uthman, from Yemen, told Remes he had been in the yard at the time and witnessed the incident. Uthman told Remes one detainee threw a rock in response to the rubber-bullet firing, not the other way around.

In early February, detainee attorneys say Guantanamo guards renewed searches of detainee cells and confiscated personal items such as photographs, letters, legal papers, exercise mats, blankets, towels, and tooth brushes. The tipping point, the attorneys say, occurred when the guards began searching detainee Korans, something guards had not done since 2006.

Pardiss Kebriaei, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, spoke on the phone last week to one detainee who said he is participating in a hunger strike, Ghaleb Nassar Al-Bihani, from Yemen.

"He said it was triggered by searches of the men's Korans, which they perceive as desecration," Kebriaei said. "He said there's been a hunger strike with almost all the men since early February."

Al-Bihani said, as of last week, he had refused all food except water, tea, and coffee for 30 days and had lost 23 pounds, according to Kebriaei. She said Al-Bihani is a diabetic, and she is worried about permanent damage to his body's organs.

"It's definitely a response to extreme frustration, desperation of men who've been detained more than 11 years and don't see an end in sight," Kebriaei said. "It makes the situation seem hopeless to them."

Anne Richardson, a California attorney who represents an Afghan detainee called Obaydullah, said he told her over the phone last week that he had lost 15 pounds after refusing food over the harsh new rules.

"It's a completely unnecessary change, and the men have no way to protest other than to go on a hunger strike," Richardson said.

Defense Department spokesman Durand, at Guantanamo, described the accusations that detainee conditions had deteriorated as "patently false" and that Korans were being mishandled as "simply untrue."

"There has been no change to our cell block search standard operating procedures. We routinely conduct searches for contraband that could be used to harm guards, medical personnel, translators, instructors, attorneys, or detainees," Durand said. "Guards are to avoid touching any detainee's Koran at any time. The Koran is treated with the utmost respect."

Durand said in comparison to the 14 detainees the military considers hunger strikers now, there were once more than 100 at one point in 2006.

He said, "At no time is a detainee deprived of the basic elements of humane treatment: food, water, religious articles, hygiene items, medical treatment, or physical recreation opportunities."

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