Over the past few weeks, news reports of Guantanamo detainees engaging in hunger strikes have intensified. As of Saturday, April 6th, US Navy Captain Robert Durand reported that 41 of the 166 detainees (or nearly 25%) had been classified as hunger strikers. Anonymous defense attorneys for GTMO detainees have been cited in several media sources as stating that the actual number of hunger strikers is much higher, with nearly 130 of 166 detainees refusing meals. The current hunger strike is estimated to have begun February 6th, with more detainees joining the original hunger strikers in recent weeks.
To officially be designated as a hunger striker, a detainee must refuse 9 consecutive meals. The health of the detainees refusing meals is closely monitored by GTMO officials, who subject the detainees to daily weigh-ins. If the detainee’s weight drops to a level officials deem dangerously low, the detainee is strapped in a chair and force fed by inserting a thick tube through his nose until he reaches an acceptable weight. At present, GTMO officials report that two detainees have been hospitalized for dehydration, and eleven (about 1/4 of the hunger strikers) are being force fed.
Hunger strikes at GTMO are not a new phenomenon. Several major hunger strikes have occurred at GTMO since the detention facility opened its doors in January, 2002; in 2002, 2003, and 2005-2006.
In a March 15th letter from 51 GTMO defense attorneys to defense secretary Chuck Hagel, the attorneys assert that this hunger strike was precipitated by the widespread searches of detainees’ Qu’rans (considered a form of religious desecration) as well as the search and seizure of detainees’ personal items like family letters, photographs, and legal mail. As detainees, hunger strikes are one of the few tactics these men have to assert their “voice” and attempt to garner attention for their grievances. Understandably, this is a significant concern for US officials, who are well-aware that many of these detainees are willing to die for their cause, and most have lost all hope of ever leaving GTMO after years of indefinite detention (in most cases, without charges against them). At present, the detainees and prison officials are at a stalemate, and it appears that the situation will only continue to worsen until the detainees’ concerns are addressed.
Kelly Ann Taddonio, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research