Guantánamo hunger strike numbers rise; Yemen proposes visit

Confronted with news of a widening hunger strike at Guantánamo, Yemenis renewed their efforts Monday to win release of nationals held at the detention center — notably dozens of them cleared for release by review boards but trapped there by both White House and Congressional restrictions.

On Friday, the Foreign Minister wrote Secretary of State John Kerry congratulating him on the new job and putting in a pitch for more releases. Then Monday, dozens of family members marched outside the U.S. Embassy in the capital Sana’a. News photographs of the event showed Yemeni men as well as women, their faces hidden from view in traditional black tunics, holding photos of their captive relatives among the 90 or so Yemeni detainees in the prison camp.

“The issue is becoming very frustrating and very difficult,” said a Yemeni official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations. “The hunger strike is very concerning, as is the lack of clarity on what’s the next step.”

At Guantánamo, officials counted nearly a fourth of the captives, 39 of the 166 prisoners, as meeting the minimum U.S. military definition of a hunger striker for having lost enough body weight and skipped at least nine meals in a row. Eleven of the captives were being fed nutritional supplements by tubes snaked up their nose and into their stomach. Two were hospitalized for intravenous drips as well as the tube feedings. On Friday, the military counted 37 captives as hunger strikers.

Lawyers for the detainees described a much more dire situation, with one of the best known cleared-for-release captives, Shaker Aamer, telling his attorney on Friday that about 130 of the 166 captives were taking part.

Aamer estimated he had lost 32 pounds, according to Stafford Smith, who quoted him as saying, “You can see the bones in my chest.”

 “Shaker understands that one detainee is reportedly 85 pounds, another 107 pounds and a third 117 pounds,” said Clive Stafford Smith, who spoke via a monitored telephone line between the camps and Britain, where Stafford Smith is based.

Even so, the Pentagon outpost has plenty of supplies to handle the situation, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a Guantánamo prison spokesman.

“We have a medical team of more than 100 personnel, including corpsmen, nurses and doctors, as well as mental health professionals exclusively attending to the needs of the detainees,” said Durand in response to a question from The Miami Herald.

“If the hunger strike significantly expands in scope and duration, we have already identified additional medical personnel stationed in the United States who can deploy rapidly to supplement our staff.”

The Yemeni official said the government was trying to reenergize talks about the fate of the Yemeni captives after years of deadlock.

The last Yemeni to go home was Adnan Latif, a captive whom the Pentagon says committed suicide in September by overdose in a maximum-security cell under constant surveillance by guards.

State Department memos made public by WikiLeaks showed the Bush administration had on-again, off-again talks about setting up a rehabilitation center with the former government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a strongman who relinquished power in the Arab Spring. Then the Obama administration established a process that approved dozens for release, on a case by case basis, in exchange for diplomatic agreements that repatriated Yemenis would be monitored — a plan the White House itself abandoned after it was established that the so-called Underwear Bomber got his training in Yemen.

Now, according to the government news agency Saba, Yemeni officials have intensified contacts with “ U.S. officials in the Departments of State, Justice and Defense, as well as with the lawyers of Yemeni detainees and human rights organizations, to discuss ways to return Yemeni detainees to their homeland.” Friday, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi re-emphasized the repatriation efforts in a congratulatory letter to Kerry that underscored “Yemen’s keenness to take all diplomatic and security measures and rehabilitation of returnees to return them to the right path and integrate them into their communities as good citizens.”

In light of the hunger strike, the Yemeni official said, the government seeks to send its first delegation to the camps since the Saleh regime fell. Through the years, according to multiple sources, the Pentagon hosted Yemeni intelligence officers invited to help develop detainee profiles. Now, Yemen’s government is proposing to send a diplomatic delegation led by Hooria Mashhour, the minister of human rights — a potential problem because Defense Department policy only permits national security delegations, not consular meetings