Guantánamo: Protest hits bottom; 19 prisoners still on hunger strike

The prison at Guantánamo said Monday it believed a long-running hunger strike has bottomed out with 19 protesting prisoners — down from a high of 106 protesters locked inside solitary cells this summer.

The figure dropped to 19 hard-core hunger strikers on Sept. 11, according to the prison, with all but one of the captives sufficiently malnourished to require a forced feeding on Monday if the prisoner does not voluntarily drink a dose of nutritional supplement, usually Ensure.

As a result, a prison spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, said the detention center “will no longer issue daily hunger strike updates.”

The decision to abandon daily reports coincides with the departure of about 100 Navy medical staff that had managed the protest through night and day nasogastric feedings, shackling individual detainees to a restraint chair and snaking a tube up one nostril to pump a nutritional supplement into a protester’s stomach.

The “Romeo” medical team, so dubbed because it was the 18th rotation of medical staff and took its name from the “R” in the alphabet, had tended to the prisoners wearing Shakespearean names as pseudonyms on their Navy battle dress.

Now the “Sierra” rotation is in place at the 11-year-old prison — and they’re sporting the names of American cities on their chests.

Detroit has replaced Desdemona. Baltimore has replaced Bertram, and so forth.

The hunger strike began in February, but it took the military a month to acknowledge it. Lawyers for the prisoners said guards undertook a particularly aggressive shakedown of cooperative captives’ cells in a manner that some captives perceived as disrespectful of their Qurans. A new practice of groin searches of captives coming and going from legal meetings soon followed, enraging the captives even more.

The chief prison camps spokesman, Navy Capt. Robert Durand, said the guards treated the holy book as usual, “with utmost respect.” Genital searches were necessary according to the chief guard, Army Col. John Bogdan, to make sure nobody was hiding weapons or other contraband there.

Before the early February cell shakedown, Durand said, fewer than five captives were considered hunger strikers, and they were allowed to live in communal confinement because they passively submitted to guard shackling and escort to a clinic for the tube feedings. One of them, a Saudi named Abdul Rahman Shalabi, 35, had been on a hunger strike since 2005.

Once the protest grew, prison guards raided the communal camp, forced the men into single-cell lockdown in April and then announced in July that they could only escape the solitary existence if they ate voluntarily. It was Ramadan, so the majority of hunger strikers quit the protest and were allowed communal prayer in small groups on their cellblocks.

“We believe today’s numbers represent those who wish to continue to strike,” House said in an announcement. “As always, our medical professionals will continue to monitor and evaluate the detainees while providing them with the appropriate level of care.”

Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York and lawyer for several detainees, said his clients attributed the large drop in hunger striking to the brutal treatment of those who continued, something the military denies, and the recent repatriation of two long-ago cleared captives to Algeria.

“I remain on hunger strike to protest the ongoing injustice,” Kassem quoted indefinite Yemeni detainee Moath al Alwi, 36, as telling him three weeks ago, in Arabic. “The only solution is our release from this place.”

Kassem quoted Syrian captive Abd el Hadi Faraj, 38, and cleared for release years ago, as saying that even the men who stopped their strikes “are eating little and exercising lots, to keep their weight down so they can return to their hunger strike on a moment’s notice.”

“Most of the prisoners are giving the Obama administration a reprieve to see if it delivers on its promises,” Faraj said, according to Kassem.

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