Amid growing strike, review of releases urged

A screen grab from a military handout video dated April 10, 2013 offers a rare glimpse of a feeding chair in the prison camps psychiatric ward, called the Behavioral Medical Unit, at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A screen grab from a military handout video dated April 10, 2013 offers a rare glimpse of a feeding chair in the prison camps psychiatric ward, called the Behavioral Medical Unit, at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Senate’s influential Intelligence Committee chairman urged the White House to renew its efforts to release cleared captives at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo on Thursday, as the prison spokesman said the hunger striking population had reached 94.

“There is a growing problem of more and more detainees on a hunger strike,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote President Barack Obama’s national security advisor. She specifically asked the White House to review the files of 86 detainees already cleared for transfer by the U.S. intelligence agencies “and let me know if there are suitable places to continue to hold or resettle these detainees either in their home countries or third countries.” The White House has blamed restrictions imposed upon transfer by Congress as well as political instability in Yemen for its inability to send any captives away.

Obama, in addition, had placed an indefinite hold on release of Yemeni detainees to their homeland after the failed 2009 Christmas Eve bombing attempt of a U.S.-bound airliner by Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man who was influenced by Yemen’s Al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula offshoot. Feinstein supported the freeze at that time, calling Yemen "too unstable."

“Although AQAP still has a strong presence in Yemen, I believe it would be prudent to re-visit the decision to halt transfers to Yemen,” she wrote NSA Director Thomas Donilon. Since the freeze, Yemen has a new post-Arab Spring president and Feinstein said the White House should reassess whether, “with appropriate assistance,” Yemen could securely hold detainees in its capital, Sana’a.

She cited a recent meeting with the International Red Cross who described detainee desperation at Guantánamo as “unprecedented.”

Feinstein released the letter on the same day the military said all 94 hunger strikers among the 166 captives at Guantánamo are under lockdown in solitary cells or at the prison hospital.

Seventeen of the 94 are getting tube feedings, Army Lt. Col. Samuel House said by email Thursday morning. Three were at the prison camp hospital although none had “any life-threatening conditions,” he added.

Lawyers for prisoners have been saying that the strike began in February, drew participation of about 130 captives and accuse the prison of providing lower figures to marginalize the protest.

Hunger strike figures have been rising steadily since April 13, when soldiers stormed inside Guantánamo’s showcase communal prison and put nearly every captive at the prison camps complex under lockdown. Before the lockdown, the military counted 43 of the 166 men as hunger strikers.

In response to a question, House said that none of the 94 hunger strikers were among a handful of captives still allowed to live communally inside a portion of the maximum-security Camp 5 prison, now Guantánamo’s most populous lockup.

Fewer than 20 men are held on two cellblocks, still allowed to pray and eat together in groups, and are permitted to walk unshackled into an adjacent cage-like recreation yard, according to both the military and lawyers who have spoken to captive clients.

The military won’t name the men on hunger strike, but the Justice Department has notified attorneys of those being tube fed.

They include:

•  Samir Mukbel, a Yemeni is in his 30s whose attorney helped him tell his story recently in a column published in The New York Times

•  Yasin Ismael, also a Yemeni in his 30s.

•  Fayez al Kandari, 35, a Kuwaiti.

Read more Guantánamo stories from the Miami Herald

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