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15 Mar, 2013 13:00

Failing health feared for Gitmo inmates on hunger strikes

Failing health feared for Gitmo inmates on hunger strikes

The health of prisoners held in Kafkaesque limbo at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp has deteriorated alarmingly after over 100 inmates went on a protest hunger strike five weeks ago.

The detainees have claimed that most of them are involved in the do-or-die strike, and their attorneys have become concerned about the prisoners’ worsening health.

“By day 45 we understand from medical experts there are serious health repercussions that start happening. Loss of hearing, potential blindness,” Pardiss Kebriaei, a New York lawyer representing Yemeni detainee Ghaleb Al-Bihanim told RT. “The potential there is for death as well if the hunger strike continues for weeks.”

Her client has allegedly lost 20 pounds since the beginning of the strike. The collective protest was reportedly triggered by the prison staff’s seizure of the inmates' personal belongings. The hunger strike began on February 6, with the prisoners protesting against the confiscation of their personal letters, photographs and legal mail, as well as the allegedly sacrilegious handling of their Korans during searches of their cells.

While prison officials have acknowledged that the hunger strike has been taking place, they have denied that the protest is large in scale, or threatening to prisoners’ health. According to Robert Durand, the director of public affairs for Joint Task Force Guantanamo, only nine detainees are refusing food, five of whom are being fed through tubes inserted into their stomachs.

Reuters / Stringer

Durand said the claims of desecration of the Koran are unfounded: "There have been no incidents of desecration of the Koran by guards or translators, and nothing unusual happened during a routine search for contraband," he told AFP.

The detainees’ lawyers and human rights activists have called for a response by authorities more meaningful than the few remarks made by the prison’s media spokesperson.

The detention camp in eastern Cuba reportedly holds 166 men seized in counterterrorism operations, most of who have been held without charge for a decade. Although Barack Obama promised to shut down the facility at the beginning of his first term as president, the facility remains open.

The UN said that the policy of indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay amounts to torture, while prisoners not formally accused of a crime have hoped to finally be brought before a court. Although half of the Guantanamo detainees have received papers from the US government clearing them for release, they are still being held at the camp.

“That context where we have individuals incarcerated, isolated from each other, and they don’t know if they are going to get out tomorrow or never. That sets off a circumstance for extreme psychological stress,” Dr. Mark Mason, an anthropologist who studies the cultural factors behind human suffering told RT.

AFP Photo / Michelle Shephard

The real challenge for the detainees is to make themselves heard by means of the hunger strike. Their lawyers have sent a letter to the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urging him to take action to end the protest.

“It’s really an abominable humanitarian situation where you’re depriving these people of life and liberty and for no really valid basis,” detainee lawyer Eric Montalvo told RT.

Human rights organizations have reported hundreds of suicide attempts, at least seven of which were successful. Last September, a Yemeni detainee took his life after spending more than a decade at Guantanamo. Adnan Latif had been cleared for release by both the Bush and Obama administrations, but was never freed.

“President Obama in his first term within 24 hours said, ‘I’m gonna close Guantanamo Bay because it doesn’t need to exist,’ and yet we sit here how many years later and we talk about all of the budget cuts and millions and millions and millions of dollars that we’re spending on this facility, the medical care, the transportation of personnel to and from, the upgrade of the facilities,” Montalvo said.

“It’s just nonsensical, it makes absolutely no sense and somebody needs to go down there, make some decisions and clear that place out because it has no purpose other than babysitting a bunch of adult people that have been cleared of any wrongdoing and they just need to be sent home,” he added.

Guantanamo Bay was opened on the wake of 9/11 as part of the George W. Bush administration’s War on Terror. Washington has alleged the inmates are terrorists who plotted or acted against the American people. Guantanamo Bay became a source of heated public debate after it was revealed that US forces had tortured detainees.