JOHANNESBURG, MARCH 27 -- A South African political detainee in critical condition after 38 days on a hunger strike -- the longest in a nationwide protest -- broke his fast today pending the outcome of negotiations for his release. According to doctors, Sandile Thusi, a 26-year-old University of Natal researcher, was approaching irreversible brain damage and then death as a result of his fast in the intensive care ward of a Durban hospital to protest his detention without trial under emergency laws. Thusi took a communion wafer at a bedside religious ceremony in a symbolic end to his fast, and then began eating solid foods for the first time in more than five weeks. Thusi's case focused attention on the impasse between protesting political detainees and Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok, who said recently that while the death of a prisoner on a hunger strike would be "too ghastly to contemplate," he would not release any prisoners while they were refusing food. Thusi reportedly lost 57 pounds, or about a third of his weight, during his protest of his nine-month detention without charge. On Feb. 18, more than 300 prisoners nationwide began hunger strikes for varying lengths of time, demanding that they either be charged with a crime or be released. The government has said it has authorized the release of 580 detainees since the hunger strikes began, while the cases of the 300 remaining political prisoners are still under review. Thusi had held the longest continuous fast, vowing to starve himself to death unless released. Thusi's lawyer, Dhaya Pillay, said he was suffering from blurred vision and had to wear an oxygen mask Saturday while talking with the Rev. Frank Chikane, general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches, who has been negotiating his release with Vlok. Pillay said that while there had been a "marked deterioration" in Thusi's condition, that was not the primary reason for the suspension of the fast. She said the hunger strike could be resumed if Thusi is not released. In a statement issued through his lawyer, Thusi said, "I feel that my detention is an endless, timeless pit." His release was one of the demands made by four detainees who escaped from a Johannesburg hospital last week and sought refuge in the West German Embassy in Pretoria. They left after the South African government announced that orders for their release had been issued before they escaped. Chikane said between 30 and 50 detainees are still in hospitals after resuming hunger strikes that were suspended last month when Vlok promised to release "substantial numbers" of political prisoners. Meanwhile, the U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights urged Pretoria on "medical and humanitarian grounds" either to release the hunger strikers or to charge them. "If the government refuses to take this step, it would, in effect, be participating in the almost certain death of these detainees," the group said in a statement. It said that serious damage to vital organs is likely after 30 days of fasting, and that from 40 to 60 days, "the risk of death becomes grave."