KINGSTON, JAMAICA — The number of inmates on hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay prison has dropped to 75 from a peak of 106 last week, and even most of the men still listed as strikers ate a meal in the last day, the U.S. military said Thursday in its latest tally of the protest that began in February.
Army Lt. Col. Sam House said in a phone interview from Guantanamo that 67 of those 75 inmates had eaten a meal during the previous 24 hours at the prison, which is currently serving food at night during the Muslim holy period of Ramadan, which lasts through early August.
The 67 detainees are still listed as hunger strikers because the U.S. military requires a minimum of three days of sustained eating and a minimal caloric intake before they can be removed from the tally. But House said the main factor must be that a prisoner wishes to be removed from the hunger strike list.
“We’re not going to remove any individual who doesn’t want to be removed. If they want to be considered a hunger striker and eat three meals a day, then they’re a hunger striker and they eat three meals a day. That’s just the way it is,” he said.
A total of 46 prisoners are on the “enteral feed list,” meaning they can be strapped down and fed a liquid nutrient mix through a nasal tube, according to the military’s latest report on the protest at the jail at the U.S. military base in Cuba.
The strike has prompted President Barack Obama to criticize the force-feedings and renew his efforts to close the prison, which houses 166 inmates.
On Tuesday, a U.S. federal judge turned down a bid by three Guantanamo prisoners on hunger strike to stop authorities from force-feeding them. Judge Rosemary M. Collyer ruled she didn’t have jurisdiction in the case because Congress removed Guantanamo detainees’ treatment and conditions of confinement from the purview of federal courts. She also said there was “nothing so shocking or inhumane in the treatment” that would raise a constitutional concern.
An attorney in Oakland, California, Jon. B. Eisenberg, said Thursday he believed the reason why more prisoners were now eating was “because they have been threatened with deprivation of the right to perform special communal Ramadan prayers if they don’t eat.”
Eisenberg filed a motion Thursday seeking an emergency injunction against the alleged denial of the right to pray communally during Ramadan on behalf of the three detainees who were turned down by Collyer while he appeals her ruling. The men, Ahmed Belbacha, Nabil Hadjarab and Shaker Aamer, all have been cleared for release but remain at Guantanamo. More than half of the prison’s population has been cleared for release, but the government has said it has been unable to find stable countries to transfer them to.
House dismissed the motion’s assertions that prisoners were being denied their right to the free exercise of religion by denying them the ability to perform communal prayers during Ramadan. As a rule, all hunger striking detainees are kept in single cells for observation.
“It would be inappropriate for me to comment on issues which are in litigation; however, we take our commitment to ensure that detainees held in our care are afforded every opportunity to practice their faith, and, furthermore, any accusation that says otherwise is ridiculous,” he said in an email later Thursday.
In April, prison authorities moved most of the men out of communal units and into single cells after detainees covered security cameras used to monitor them. The move set off a violent clash, but officials issued a “pardon” that erased the men’s accumulated disciplinary infractions and permitted many of them to pray together in recent days after having been largely isolated from each other.
House declined to speculate on the reasons behind the reduced number of hunger strikers and said he was not aware of any reasons detainees may have given guards or medical staff. But he noted that Ramadan, an important period in the Muslim calendar in which the observant abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, has historically been a tranquil period at Guantanamo.
He said eating regular meals is “a condition of communal living.” Asked whether detainees who had resumed eating were being returned to communal living quarters, he said: “It is likely that they are, but I cannot speak for each one. There are some detainees who actually choose to be in a single cell.”
According to the military’s Thursday tally, three hunger strikers were being observed in a base hospital. It said none had any life-threatening condition.