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Hunger strikers surge to 10 percent at Guantánamo

Miami Herald
by Carol Rosenberg
January 8, 2009

Guantánamo captives are staging a fresh wave of hunger strikes ahead of the seventh anniversary of the controversial prison camps -- a campaign a lawyer links to the speedy release of Osama bin Laden's driver from U.S. military detention.

As of Thursday, 30 of the 250 war-on-terror detainees were classified as hunger strikers, 25 of whom were being fed through tubes in their noses, said Navy Cmdr. Pauline Storum at Guantánamo.

Defense lawyers have long described the tactic as a spontaneous protest against their indefinite detention.

Military officials see it as part of a choreographed power struggle between detainees and their guards.

Washington lawyer David Remes, who represents 17 Yemenis, said some of his clients launched the latest hunger strike after Yemeni Salim Hamdan went home in November, a month shy of completion of his 66-month prison sentence.

''They've actually gone ballistic at the fact that Hamdan, who was convicted of supporting terrorism, was released and they, who have been charged with nothing, continue to languish there,'' said Remes, who met with clients before Christmas.

At that point, he said, there were 19 hunger strikers segregated in a feeding block of Camp 1.

Hunger strikers at Guantánamo are counted as captives who refuse nine meals in a row.

Those fed through tubes have fasted for 21 days in a row, Storum said -- or weigh less than 85 percent of their ''ideal body weight,'' or weight on arrival.

The forced-feeding regime has guards and medical staff strap a captive into a chair, Velcro his head to a metal restraint, then tether a tube into the man's stomach through his nose to pump in liquid nourishment twice a day.

A doctor and the prison camps commander signs off on each case, said Storum.

A military commission this summer convicted Hamdan, 40, of supporting terror for working as bin Laden's $200-a-month driver in Afghanistan until his capture in November 2001.

He was sent to the Yemeni capital Sana'a for his final month in jail -- meaning he would've had a Dec. 29 release date -- but has not yet been released, according to both Yemeni and U.S. legal sources.

Long-held detainees, most held without charge since early 2002, were ''elated'' that Hamdan was leaving the prison camps, Remes said.

But, ``that doesn't mitigate the perverseness of the situation. If an ordinary detainee knew that all you had to be [was] Osama's servant to get out, a lot of them would have fabricated confessions that they were Osama's servant.''

Storum said about two-thirds of the fasters are Yemeni, but said ''the data'' did not support Remes' claim that it was linked to Hamdan's return.

About 40 percent of Guantánamo detainees are Yemeni, some of whom the Bush administration has sought to negotiate return to custody in their Arabian peninsula nation.

Moreover, two of the protesters have been nourished exclusively through tubes in their noses since August 2005 -- long before the latest wave surged to 10 percent of the detainees.

Storum said prison camp analysis linked the latest wave to the coming change of administrations, coupled with the seventh anniversary of creation of the prison camps.

On Jan. 11, 2002, the first 20 detainees, manacled and masked, landed at Guantánamo on an 8,000-mile air bridge from Afghanistan. Now, President-elect Barack Obama has vowed to empty the prison camps, and human rights activists are planning vigils this weekend to remind him of his promise.

''We typically see an upswing in those numbers as we approach the anniversary of the beginning of the operations here,'' Storum said.

More than 600 have been held and released, while the Pentagon now reports the total prison camp census at ''about 250'' men from 31 countries.

They include alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Canadian Omar Khadr, captured at age 15 and facing a Jan. 26 war crimes trial in the grenade killing of a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.

New York attorney Sarah Havens said some captives are locked in a hunger-strike cycle, citing her Yemeni client, Imad Hassan, in his 30s.

Hassan, who has never been charged with a crime, has been fed through a tube on and off for three years and suffers serious health consequences, including digestive and pancreas problems.

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