MIAMI (AP) — The U.S. government has begun notifying lawyers of Guantanamo Bay prisoners if the men they represent are being force-fed to prevent them from starving to death in a hunger strike that has dragged on for more than two months, though its extent remains in dispute.
Cori Crider, a lawyer for Yemeni prisoner Samir Mukbel, said she received notification from the Department of Justice late last week that her client was being force-fed and was permitted to speak with him by phone Monday to confirm the report.
Crider, who works for the British legal rights group Reprieve, said Mukbel told her he joined the hunger strike in February, has lost about 30 pounds and at one point fainted and had to be hospitalized at the prison on the U.S. base in Cuba. He described the feeding process as painful.
"Some people have gone through this a lot but he said he had never felt anything like it in his life," she said shortly after the call.
The U.S. military generally does not discuss specific prisoners in part because doing so might violate provisions of the Geneva Conventions that prohibit making a public spectacle of prisoners, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the detention center. As part of that policy, officials have not confirmed the identities of individual hunger strikers, though there has at times been indirect confirmation in court papers as part of the process through which the men challenge their confinement in federal court.
Durand said he was aware the government was notifying lawyers whose clients were being force fed, though he did not know the reason for the change.
Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have gone on hunger strikes since shortly after the prison opened in January 2002. Lawyers for prisoners said the current one began around Feb. 6 to protest the virtual halt in releases under President Barack Obama as well as what they say is a tightening of restrictions and intrusive searches of their Qurans. The lawyers allege that most of the 166 prisoners are participating in the hunger strike.
U.S. officials have said there has been no tightening of restrictions at the base and that the Qurans have been searched in a respectful way by Muslim translators looking for contraband such as medications or potential weapons. There were 42 prisoners listed as hunger strikers Monday under the military guidelines, which include missing nine consecutive meals. Of that group, 11 were being force fed, Durand said.
The feeding procedure used at Guantanamo Bay is similar to one used in civilian federal prisons and involves giving them a liquid nutrient mix through a flexible rubber tube inserted into the prisoner's nostril. Base officials have said it is not painful, though they have also offered the men a topical anesthetic.
Crider said Mukbel told her that he had refused to be force-fed on one occasion in March and was taken by guards to the detainee hospital and handcuffed to a bed for 24 hours to undergo the procedure. The account could not be independently verified.
Mukbel is not facing any charges, according to his lawyer, and is one of about two dozen Yemenis at Guantanamo who have been cleared for transfer but cannot be sent back to their own country because the Obama administration believes the country's security and political situation is too dicey to prevent former militants from attacking the U.S. or its allies.
He previously had been held in a section of Guantanamo for well-behaved prisoners but had grown bitterly frustrated, Crider said.
"Samir's theory was always that if I don't cause any trouble they will clearly see that I'm not threat to anyone and turn me loose," she said. "But so far his calculation on that hasn't been quite right."