WASHINGTON -- New tensions between Guantanamo Bay detainees and the US military
have prompted 89 prisoners to resume a hunger strike that so far has left seven
hospitalized, a spokesman for the military operation confirmed yesterday.
The prisoners, protesting their living conditions and their continued detention
without trials, had undertaken a widespread hunger strike that ended in July.
Word that the hunger strike had resumed was disclosed yesterday by Clive Stafford
Smith, a British human rights lawyer who returned from visiting clients at the
base a week ago.
Smith warned that many detainees have grown so desperate that they intend to
starve themselves to death in an effort to create a public relations disaster
for the US military. No detainee has died at the prison since it opened in January
2002, but, in the view of lawyers who have talked to clients, there have been
signs of extreme frustration this summer.
According to Smith's newly declassified notes, his client Binyam Mohammed,
a British refugee from Ethiopia, told him on Aug. 11 that many among the prison
population had decided to resume their hunger strike. The decision was sparked
by rumors of a violent interrogation session and two rough extractions of detainees
from their cells, as well as a new incident of alleged desecration of a copy
of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
The detainees viewed the rumors as a violation of an agreement struck at the
end of July to bring an end to the hunger strike, Smith said. Meeting with detainee
representatives, the military had promised a series of improvements to living
conditions if they would start eating again.
''They have betrayed our trust," Smith's declassified notes quote Mohammed
as saying. ''Therefore the strike must begin again. Some have already begun.
. . . I do not plan to stop until I either die or we are respected. People will
Army Colonel Brad Blackner, a spokesman for the prison operation, confirmed
yesterday that ''detainees began fasting to protest their continued detention"
on Aug. 8. He said the military views this as a continuation of the July hunger
strike, not a new one.
''We are monitoring some detainees who have missed at least nine meals over
a 72-hour period, which we define as a hunger strike," Blackner said.
Smith was the last attorney to return from Guantanamo because the military
did not allow any detainee representatives to visit the base last week. He represents
several dozen detainees, but only his notes of his conversation with Mohammed
have been partially declassified. ''This is all that is unclassified for now,
but you can imagine that there is much more," he said. ''This is very urgent,
as you can infer from the statement that if they stopped eating on Aug. 11 or
so, this means that some of them could be getting in serious physical problems
by the next week or so."
But Blackner said that the prison had dealt with hunger strikes regularly since
the start, and that medical staff were closely monitoring the fasting detainees.
Camp policy is to force-feed any detainee ''to avert death from fasting and
from dehydration," he said.
Smith's report of the resumption of the hunger strike was made as the military
has declassified the notes of other lawyers who visited the base in the last
month, clearing them to disclose what their clients told them about what has
been happening this summer.
Several lawyers said their clients reported that about 200 of the 500 prisoners
participated in the July hunger strike, resulting in several dozen hospitalizations
requiring intravenous fluids. The military said the number was closer to 100.
Many detainees started to eat again around July 28, after the military promised
to make concessions that allegedly varied from specific improvements to their
living conditions to assurances they would receive trials.
Detainees were allegedly promised better access to books and that they would
receive bottled drinking water with each meal, instead of having to drink what
they considered unpalatable water out of the sinks in their cells. The military
said last week it was seeking to expand the size of its library. Several attorneys
said the military had started supplying bottled water in early August.
Jonathan Hafetz, who visited the base in late July to meet with a Qatari client,
said his newly declassified notes indicate that the prisoners were primarily
interested in improving their physical and religious conditions.
''He attributed the strike to the bad water and the lack of respect for Islam,"
he said. ''For example, guards laughed at prisoners when they are praying and
disrespect the Koran when they go into a cell to [restrain] a prisoner."
Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, who visited his six Bahraini clients in late July and
early August, said things did improve after the agreement. In a cellblock where
at least one of his clients is housed, he said, the military began turning off
loud industrial fans during the calls-to-prayer.
''It was also said that international law would be recognized at Guantanamo,
whatever that means," Colangelo-Bryan said. ''It seems there was a probationary
period . . . and if things did not change within that time, then a hunger strike
of more severe proportions could be undertaken."
By the end of the first week of August, there was rising discontent among detainees
who believed that they had been misled in order to get them to start eating
again. Lawyer David Remes said his Yemeni clients told him during the first
week of August that detainees were starting to doubt the promises that had been
made in order to get them to relent.
''There is a sense that the government tricked them into ending their hunger
strike by promising them the moon because the government couldn't tolerate a
situation in which detainees were placing themselves at risk of death or serious
injury as a result of being on the hunger strike," Remes said.