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18 Detainees Force-Fed at Guantanamo

Times Staff Writer

A hunger strike at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has grown to 128 prisoners who are demanding that they be immediately released or granted access to a legal process to defend themselves against blanket allegations that they are terrorists.

The strike, begun more than five weeks ago, has forced military authorities to hospitalize 18 of the prisoners and to take extraordinary measures to force-feed them.

Some detainees have vowed to die if necessary, but the Pentagon insists that it will not let anyone starve to death.

“Everyone is stable,” Sgt. Justin Behrens, a prison spokesman, said of those hospitalized. “We’re going to take care of everyone.”

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More than a quarter of the 502 detainees have refused food and liquids at various times as the protest has gained momentum since it began Aug. 8.

Along with demanding that they be freed or put on trial, some detainees also are complaining of assaults by guards and continuing to allege that there has been desecration of Muslim religious items. Behrens denied that detainees were being abused.

“The guards here are professional and are using standard operating procedures,” he said. “Officers are on the cellblocks all the time to make sure this never happens.”

Nevertheless, some of the complaints from prisoners, natives of 40 different countries sent to the prison after it opened in 2002, are being disclosed by attorneys.

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All 502 have been designated “enemy combatants.” Four have been charged with specific crimes and are awaiting trial before military commissions.

Maj. Jane Boomer, a Pentagon spokeswoman assigned to the Office of Military Commissions, said that the military commissions were on hold, awaiting a decision on whether the Supreme Court would grant a challenge to the legality of the process.

“We are very, very patient here in Guantanamo,” prisoner Binyam Mohammed wrote in an Aug. 11 letter to his lawyer, explaining why the hunger strike was begun. “But finally enough was enough.”

He joined the hunger strike, vowing that “I do not plan to stop until I either die or we are respected.”

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Mohammed, a 27-year-old native of Ethiopia who was raised in England, is suspected of training in an Afghan paramilitary camp and of engaging in terrorist plots. After Sept. 11, he fled to Pakistan, where he was captured.

Another hunger striker, Hisham Sliti of Tunisia, told his lawyers that soldiers threw a chair and a mini-refrigerator at him in an effort to get him to talk.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York legal advocacy group that has helped some of the prisoners, found in a new report that the protest followed several smaller hunger strikes, as well as a mass suicide attempt in which nearly two dozen prisoners tried to hang themselves in their cells two years ago.

The group said that frustration among prisoners was growing. The prisoners “need fair trials with proper legal representation,” the center said in a report on the hunger strike.

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The group quoted prisoner Shaker Aamer, a Saudi who later moved to London and was captured by allied forces in Afghanistan, as saying that the hunger strike was triggered when authorities placed some detainees who belonged to a “prisoners council” in isolation cells.

“The government’s effort to detain hundreds of Muslim men outside the rule of law has greatly undermined our nation’s moral standing in the international community,” the Center for Constitutional Rights said in the report. It “threatens the values of justice and fairness for which our country stands.”

The Pentagon defines a hunger striker as anyone who passes up nine meals over 72 hours.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide by the end of this month whether to hear the challenge about the legality of military commissions.

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If it does decide to hear the challenge, the high court probably would not decide the case until sometime next year.


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