Hunger Strike Continues at Guantanamo Bay

At Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 128 detainees — about one quarter of the prisoners being held at the military base — are on a hunger strike. The prisoners began the strike in early August to protest open-ended detentions and alleged beatings by military guards.

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A group of detainees at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, began a hunger strike early last month. Slowly the strike spread throughout the various camps that house more than 500 prisoners. More than five weeks later, scores of Guantanamo detainees are refusing food and water, and the military leaders on the base have no clear plan how to stop others from joining. NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Two weeks ago, Scott Sullivan, a New York lawyer, made one of his regular visits to Guantanamo Bay to see his clients, 11 Yemeni men who have been held at the base for more than three years. At that time, five of Sullivan's clients were on a hunger strike. Sullivan was shocked at what he calls their emaciated appearance, one Yemeni man in particular.

Mr. SCOTT SULLIVAN (Lawyer): He had been on a hunger strike for 22 days, and the day we met with him was the first day he was going to begin going without fluids.

NORTHAM: Two weeks later, Sullivan says he has no idea how that detainee is doing or how his other clients, also on a hunger strike, are faring. Sullivan says the government will not share details about the prisoners' conditions. The attorneys have to visit the remote base to see for themselves. But the military is sharing the numbers involved. Last Friday, 82 prisoners were on a hunger strike. Captain John Adams, the officer in charge of media relations at Guantanamo, says that number has gone up to 128.

Captain JOHN ADAMS (Military Spokesman): Out of which 18 are currently in the detention hospital. Fifteen are being fed through feeding tubes through the nose, and also we have three others that are being hydrated intravenously.

NORTHAM: That means, by official figures, about one-quarter of the detainees at Guantanamo are refusing to voluntarily eat or take water. Sullivan says the strikes are being organized by a group of detainees to keep pressure on the government.

Mr. SULLIVAN: The way the hunger strike is structured is that it's set up so different people join at different times, and then people stop taking fluids at different times. And we have a client who was going to start striking on September 6th and then another client who informed us that he was going to stop taking water on September 9th.

NORTHAM: This is the second major hunger strike in recent months. Another that started in June lasted six weeks. Sullivan says at that time, the prisoners were protesting against the conditions at the camp, which they allege included beatings by military personnel. He says the detainees were angry when the military allegedly reneged on promises it had made in order to end that strike. Sullivan says this protest has to do with the anger and frustration the prisoners face over their open-ended detentions. Most of them have been held for more than three years. Only a handful have been charged.

The Pentagon says it has set up processes to assure that no detainee stays longer than necessary. Captain Adams says the stalemate is discussed almost daily.

Capt. ADAMS: And there are meetings with military folks from all of the different agencies to try to combat the hunger strike, to try to make it go away, bottom line. We're trying to do whatever we can to have the detainees begin to eat again.

NORTHAM: Military officials say they will not let any of the prisoners die. They'll continue to be hospitalized to make sure they get nutrients. The small detainees' hospital only holds 20 beds. Adams says if necessary, prisoners will be taken to a nearby naval hospital.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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