The Red Cross expressed concern today about the two-month-old hunger strike by Guantanamo Bay prisoners, some of whom are being force-fed, as the US military said 26 were on strike but their lawyers insisted the figure exceeded 200.
The strike that began on August 8 over conditions and lack of legal rights is the most widespread of a handful of such protests since the prison camp at the US naval base at Guantanamo in Cuba opened in January 2002, the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR) said.
US army Lieutenant Colonel Jeremy Martin, a Guantanamo spokesman, said 26 detainees were taking part in a “voluntary fast”, including 22 in hospital for “involuntary feedings” involving food given through a nasal tube and fluids given intravenously. Some rights activists have criticised this force feeding.
Colonel Martin said the number peaked at 131 last month and had since steadily declined.
“The detainees are all clinically stable, closely monitored by medical personnel to ensure that they don’t harm themselves – and will continue to receive appropriate nutrition, fluids and excellent medical care,” he said.
Amnesty International rejected his account.
“Even the language that they’re using is totally indicative of the fact they’re trying to minimise this,” Amnesty International official Jumana Musa said.
“What is a ‘voluntary fast’? This didn’t start because of Ramadan (the Islamic holy month in which Muslims fast). That’s a voluntary fast. This is a hunger strike, which is basically people pledging to starve themselves to death.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva underlined its concern.
“There is a hunger strike, the situation is serious, and we are following it with concern,” ICRC spokeswoman Antonella Notari said.
The hunger strike is the latest flash-point between the US government and human rights groups over the camp, which activists call a blight on the US human rights record.
The Centre for Constitutional Rights, along with affiliated lawyers, represents more than 200 of the approximately 505 detainees at Guantanamo.
CCR lawyer Barbara Olshansky said her group estimated about 210 prisoners were taking part in the hunger strike, and accused the military of deliberately understating the strike’s scope.
Ms Olshansky acknowledged her group had not been able to perform a systematic head count of participants at the secretive prison, and said the estimate was based on data gathered by lawyers visiting detainees in recent weeks.
Australian terrorist suspect David Hicks is among about 505 detainees being held in the prison.
Human rights groups have denounced these indefinite detentions and treatment they say amounts to torture.
Most detainees were picked up in Afghanistan after the US invaded in 2001 to oust the Taliban government and dislodge al-Qaeda bases.
The hunger strike began after the military reneged on promises given to detainees to bring the prison into compliance with the Geneva Conventions, CCR said.
Detainees were willing to starve themselves to death to demand humane treatment and a fair hearing on whether they must stay at the prison, it said.