More prisoners have joined a hunger strike that began on February 6 at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay. Striking prisoners say they are protesting more intrusive searches of their cells and open-ended confinement without charge.
According to Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the prison, 28 out of 166 prisoners are on strike, marking one of the most sustained protests the base has had in several years. The prison’s medical staff is closely monitoring the health of all prisoners, and ten of the strikers are being force-fed to prevent dangerous weight loss.
Differences in the notion of what constitutes a “hunger strike” have provoked sharp disagreement between the military and the detainees’ lawyers about how many prisoners are participating. Under the U.S. military’s formal definition, developed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, being on strike includes missing nine consecutive meals—in other words, abstaining from eating three days in a row. Lawyers for detainees claim that the military is significantly undercounting the number of strikers and say that the majority of the detainees in Camps Five and Six have been refusing to eat for weeks.
In response to these claims, Durand said that some prisoners who are refusing their meals have been observed eating food provided by other sources, and that others have covered up the security cameras in their cells to make it more difficult to track their eating.
The reasons for the strike are also in dispute. Lawyers say their clients’ complaints are motivated by an intrusive cell search in early February in which guards touched and inspected their Korans for contraband—an act that is considered a religious desecration. Detainees are also protesting the uncertain legal status of the majority of the prisoners, as well as restrictions on transfers, which have nearly halted any departures from the base. Military officials say there has been no change in the way searches are conducted at Guantánamo and that the hunger strike is an attempt to attract media coverage.
Hunger strikes have occurred at Guantánamo since shortly after it opened in January 2002. The largest one began in the summer of 2005 and reached a peak of 131 prisoners, when the facility held about 500 detainees. A delegation from the International Committee for the Red Cross made an urgent visit to Guantánamo this week to meet with hunger strikers and determine the gravity of the situation on the ground.