Wednesday, September 14, 2005

One-fourth of Guantanamo prisoners on hunger strike


One-fourth of Guantanamo prisoners on hunger strike

MIAMI (Reuters) - Nearly one-fourth of the prisoners at the U.S. military's Guantanamo base in Cuba are on a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention, and 18 are being force-fed in a hospital, a military spokesman said on Tuesday.

The hunger strike began on August 8 and 128 prisoners have since joined, said Sgt. Justin Behrens, a spokesman for the task force running the Guantanamo prison.

"They want to be tried or set free," Behrens said by telephone from Guantanamo.

The Guantanamo prison holds about 505 foreign terrorism suspects, many of them captured during the U.S. war in Afghanistan that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Some have been held at Guantanamo since the prison camp opened in January 2002, but only four have been charged with crimes and none have been tried.

Behrens said the number refusing food and water fluctuated, with prisoners joining and dropping out of the hunger strike.

"Most of the people that started it are off now," he said.

Eighteen were in the hospital at the Camp Delta prison, where 13 were being fed via nasal tubes and five were being fed intravenously to keep them alive, he said.

Attorneys for the Guantanamo Bay prisoners argued in a federal appeals court in Washington last week that the detainees should have a chance to prove in court that they had been mistakenly labeled as "enemy combatants" and have been unlawfully detained.

"They are on a hunger strike because they want a hearing in court with a lawyer of their own. They are willing to starve themselves to death," said attorney Gita Gutierrez with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represented some British prisoners since released from Guantanamo.

The Bush administration has held that the prisoners are not entitled to any constitutional due process rights because they are being held outside the United States and that the United States has the right to hold them in perpetuity.

The appeals court was not expected to rule until next year, and its decision was likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Pentagon said 246 prisoners had been sent home from Guantanamo since the prison operation began, with some freed and some transferred for detention in their home countries.

Most recently, an Afghan prisoner was sent home on Monday. The U.S. military would not identify him but Afghan state television said the man was Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan.

He became the Taliban's spokesman after the September 11 attacks and held regular news conferences at his Islamabad embassy at which he tried to convince the world the Taliban's guest, Osama bin Laden, was not responsible.