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Military imposes blackout on Guantánamo hunger-strike figures

The Miami Herald
December 3, 2013
by Carol Rosenberg

The Guantánamo prison, whose motto is "safe, humane, legal, transparent detention," announced Tuesday that it will no longer disclose daily hunger-strike figures — abandoning a practice that allowed the public to see the rise and fall of the captives’ nearly year-long protest.

Under the new policy, the U.S. military will "no longer publicly issue the number of detainees who choose not to eat as a matter of protest," said Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, the chief of the prison camps’ 20-member public-relations team.

At the height of the hunger strike this summer, a special Navy medical unit at the prison counted 106 of the then-166 captives as hunger-strikers, using a calculus of meals missed, weight lost, and detainee claims that they were fasting.

It bottomed out at 11 prisoners counted as hunger-strikers on Nov. 15 but had risen as of Monday — the last day the prison disclosed the hunger-strike figure — to 15 captives so thin they were eligible for forced-feeding through nasogastric tubes if they didn’t voluntarily chug a dose of Ensure.

Until Filostrat took over in October, the public-relations team routinely provided daily transparency on the figures.

In earlier years, prison spokesmen also responded to queries with that day’s hunger-strike count from the prison’s Battle Update Brief — in which Navy medical teams reported the daily tally of hunger-strikers to leadership of the rotating detention-center staff.

But Filostrat alternately described the daily disclosure as a disruption of prison-camp operations and as a new public-relations strategy by the Joint Task Force, or JTF, of 2,100 troops and contractors assigned to the prison-camp complex now housing 164 detainees.

"JTF-Guantánamo allows detainees to peacefully protest but will not further their protests by reporting the numbers to the public," the spokesman said. "The release of this information serves no operational purpose and detracts from the more important issues, which are the welfare of detainees and the safety and security of our troops."

He refused to elaborate on how the daily report interfered with troop security and detainee welfare and whether "operational purpose" was now a calculus in the "transparency" portion of the prison motto.

The Miami Herald had been tracking the hunger strike on a daily basis since March when U.S. military spokesmen acknowledged the protest was underway — a month after lawyers for the prisoners reported the widespread protest.

Filostrat would not say who ordered him to refuse to respond to reporters’ requests on the daily hunger tally. But Army Col. Greg Julian, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, said it was Marine Gen. John Kelly, the Southcom commander who has oversight of most U.S. military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

"These statistics were never reported before the recent mass protest and it has become a self-perpetuating story," said Julian, adding that Kelly thought the staff at the prison had refused to report the daily tally in September and was apparently unaware that the prison had responded to a daily query from the Miami Herald until Tuesday for its online hunger-strike tracker.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the Pentagon said a Sudanese weapons trainer who pleaded guilty to conspiring with al-Qaida finished his sentence at the Guantánamo prison and will be sent home "as soon as practicable."

Noor Uthman Mohammed has met the terms of his February 2011 plea agreement, which cut his 14-year sentence to 34 months in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors, the Pentagon official overseeing the Guantánamo war-crimes tribunal wrote in a memo signed last month and obtained by Reuters on Tuesday.

His sentence ends Dec. 3, Convening Authority for Military Commissions Paul Oostburg Sanz wrote in the memo. A Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday that Noor would be repatriated.

"Although we will not discuss specific dates or times of transfers due to operational security and diplomatic reasons, the United States intends to transfer him as soon as practicable after the completion of his sentence of confinement," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale told Reuters.

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