Guantánamo

Guantánamo: ‘Handful’ of last 91 captives on hunger strike

A screen grab from a military handout video dated April 10, 2013 offers a rare glimpse of a restraint chair used for forced feedings in the prison camps’ psychiatric ward, called the Behavioral Health Unit, at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
A screen grab from a military handout video dated April 10, 2013 offers a rare glimpse of a restraint chair used for forced feedings in the prison camps’ psychiatric ward, called the Behavioral Health Unit, at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. crosenberg@miamiherald.com

New military leaders are continuing a former general’s blackout on hunger strike figures, refusing to say how many of the last 91 detainees are on a Navy medical team’s list of detainees designated for nasal-gastric tube-feedings on any given day.

“The numbers are very small nowadays,” said a Navy Captain whose title is Senior Medical Officer. That number? “A small handful.” He also continued to use the term “non-religious fast” rather than “hunger strike” to describe detainees who refuse to eat as a form of protest.

Following a four-month blackout on media access to the Detention Center Zone, a new, shorter version of a visit offered Tuesday no longer offered a demonstration of the tools used to conduct a tube-feeding — the detention center’s now iconic restraint chair, a 10 French feeding tube, lubricant and cans of a nutritional supplement, usually of the Ensure variety.

In past visits, the chairs could be seen from the war court to the prison’s mental-health ward and cell blocks of the detention center’s maximum-security prison. Staff members would stage the demonstration at a stop along the way of visits by both news media members and other distinguished visitors.

The Navy captain in charge of 100 Navy doctors, nurses and corpsmen would not quantify how many detainees were on hunger strike but said of that number, some choose to drink a nutritional shake rather than be put in the restraint chair and have a nurse snake a tube up a nostril, down the back of the hunger striker’s throat and into his stomach up to twice daily to deliver the calories.

Even those getting the tube-feedings, the doctor said, are “very compliant,” don’t fight the medical staff, and therefore don’t get their limbs and head individually immobilized in what is called a five-point restraint.

In the past, the force-feeding figures were a useful gauge of sentiment at the detention center where this week, leaders described the situation as quiet and to some degree expectant of more releases. In June 2013, when frustration boiled over and, according to their lawyers, detainees believed members of the U.S. military disrespected their copies of the Quran, more than 100 captives were on hunger strike by the prison’s own daily disclosures. At the height, 46 were tube-fed on a single day.

Former Southcom commander Marine Gen. John F. Kelly ordered troops to stop releasing figures in December 2013. The senior medical officer this week said he was following policy by not providing precise figures beyond “the handful” who are “partaking in a non-religious fast.”

Military commanders have said that they believed the publicity encouraged participation.

Based on a day of briefings, the 91 captives are held in at least five and probably six facilities:

▪ Fifteen are former CIA captives in Camp 7, the secret prison that reporters have never been allowed to see.

▪ Twenty to 30 are in Camp 5, a 100-cell maximum-security prison building. This week, its two or three “non-compliant” captives, meaning they disobeyed the guards, were attired in orange jumpsuits signifying their status and were confined to their cells for long stretches of the day. It also held the hunger strikers who by prison policy are housed in individual cells and an unknown number of communal captives plus Guantánamo’s lone war criminal, whose conviction has been vacated by the courts and is under government appeal.

▪ Another two captives were in the prison’s medical compound — one in the psychiatric ward called the Behavior Health Unit on what was described as “a timeout” from the larger detention center and another at the detainee hospital for an undisclosed reason.

▪ An undisclosed number of captives in the Camp Echo special compound that for years has held at least “Guantánamo Diary” writer Mohamedou Slahi.

▪ The remaining less than 50 captives are in the 175-bed communal Camp 6 prison building for cooperative captives.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

See the Miami Herald’s 1,000-plus-day Guantánamo hunger-strike tracker here.

Our updated prison-camp guide, with Herald estimates of where detainees are held here.

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