Tensions between detainees and the military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have spiked in recent weeks, with a hunger strike at one of the camps reflecting growing despair that the Obama administration has abandoned efforts to repatriate prisoners cleared for release, according to defense lawyers and other people with access to information about detention operations.
A majority of the 166 detainees remaining at Guantanamo Bay are housed in Camp 6, a facility that until recently held men the military deemed “compliant.” But the camp, where cell doors are left open so detainees can live communally, has been at the center of a series of escalating protests since January.
The lawyers and human rights advocates said there is a mass hunger strike at Camp 6 that is threatening the health and life of a number of detainees. In a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, they said they have received “alarming reports” that men have lost “over 20 and 30 pounds” and that “at least two dozen men have lost consciousness due to low blood glucose levels.”
A military official said 14 detainees are on hunger strikes and six of them are being force fed. Others have been refusing meals but eating non-perishable food stashed in their cells, officials said.
In a statement, Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for Joint Task Force Guantanamo, said “claims of a mass hunger strike . . . are simply untrue.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only outside organization allowed unrestricted visits to the camps, said it visited Guantanamo from Feb. 18 to 23 and “is aware of the tensions at the detention facility.”
“The ICRC routinely follows the situation of detainees on hunger strikes and continues to do so today,” the group said in a statement. “The ICRC believes past and current tensions at Guantanamo to be the direct result of the uncertainty faced by detainees.”
Officials at the ICRC would not comment on information obtained by The Washington Post that a Red Cross employee was splashed with a mixture of feces and urine during the February visit. Durand said guards have been splashed with bodily fluids.
The immediate trigger for the protests was a series of searches in Camp 6 in which detainees alleged that their Korans were desecrated by guards who looked through them.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said that no member of the guard force ever touches a Koran and that any examination of Korans would be conducted by cultural advisers at Guantanamo, most of whom are Muslim. He also noted that detainees have in the past used their Korans to hide contraband.
Of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo, the administration has said, more than 80 are cleared for release if they can be returned to their home country or resettled in a third country. But Congress has imposed a series of restrictions on transfers out of Guantanamo, which have ground to a halt.
In January, the administration closed the State Department office charged with negotiating the transfer of detainees and accelerating the closure of the facility.
“Part of this is the general, absolute loss of hope, people having forgotten about Guantanamo and the administration having no plan for closure,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents a number of detainees.