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Hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay shows signs of weakening

Detainees participate in an early morning prayer session at Camp IV at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base August 5, 20
Detainees participate in an early morning prayer session at Camp IV at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base August 5, 20

By Jane Sutton

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The hunger strike that began nearly six months ago at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba and spread to include two-thirds of its 166 prisoners has tapered off with a Ramadan pardon that has allowed some prisoners to be together during Islam's holy month.

Military jailers said the camp was stable and calm after recent upheavals but did not know if the hunger strike would revive when the traditionally quiet period of Ramadan ends on August 7 and normal routines resume.

The force-feeding of hunger-strikers has made global headlines and pressured President Barack Obama to act on a lapsed vow to shut down the camp on the U.S. Naval Base.

"It (the strike) did work. It got everybody talking," said the camp's cultural adviser, a Jordanian native who goes by the name Zak and works with prisoners and camp commanders.

In the last two months the Obama administration has cleared two Algerian prisoners for repatriation, appointed a new State Department envoy to negotiate resettlement of others and announced plans to start long-promised parole-type reviews for those it does not plan to try because it has no admissible evidence linking them to specific attacks.

President Barack Obama will meet on Thursday in Washington with Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to discuss the return of 56 Yemeni prisoners who were cleared for transfer years ago but whose repatriation was blocked because of concerns about instability in their homeland.

The current hunger strike began in February after guards seized family photos, legal documents and other belongings during what was described as a routine cell search. Prisoners accused the guards of mishandling Korans, which camp officials denied.

By mid-April, 43 prisoners had joined the strike, and a few occasionally passed out from dehydration or low blood sugar, a senior medical officer said.

Thirteen had grown so thin that Navy medics were keeping them alive by force-feeding them high-protein shakes via tubes inserted in their nostrils and threaded into their stomachs. Guards strapped them into chairs to prevent resistance.

Prisoners who had long lived in communal cellblocks began refusing to return to their cells at night, covered their windows with protest signs and put cereal boxes over the cameras to obscure the view of guards, camp officials said. Others splashed guards with urine and feces, something that hadn't happened at the prison in recent memory.

Military SWAT teams in riot gear moved in on April 13 and forced inmates back into their cells. A few fought back with broomsticks, and guards fired rubber pellets to control them. Five were hurt in the scuffle, camp officials said.

The hunger strike ratcheted up steadily after that, peaking in early July, with 106 taking part and 46 force-fed at least some of their meals.

When Ramadan began on July 8, camp commanders pardoned all disciplinary infractions and allowed some detainees to return to communal housing.

"Everyone got the slate wiped clean," said Lieutenant Colonel Samuel House, a spokesman for the detention operation.

About 100 who abandoned the hunger strike or never took part have now earned their way back into group housing by following camp rules. They can eat, pray and mingle in groups for five to 18 hours a day before being locked in their cells overnight.

Art and language classes, which were halted with the April raid, have resumed and television-watching privileges have been restored to more prisoners as order returned during Ramadan.

"It's like night and day," said Army Sergeant 1st Class Vernon Branson, a senior watch commander in one of the prisons.

During a recent visit, Reuters saw 16 or 17 bearded prisoners, dressed in white tunics, pants and prayer caps, kneeling on two rows of mats for late-afternoon prayers in the open bay of one communal cellblock. Seen through one-way glass, they looked adequately fed.

Out of sight were the hunger strikers. Camp officials have decided to lock them in single cells until they resume eating, renounce the hunger strike and pass a medical exam.

Yemeni prisoner Samir Moqbel, who is among 86 captives cleared for release in 2010, said he was beaten and forced back into a solitary cell as punishment for refusing to abandon his hunger strike.

"We are protesting," Moqbel said through his attorney, Cori Crider of the human rights group Reprieve. "There are people who have been here for 11 years and are cleared to go. In fact, if you look at the people that they have cleared, that means they are not criminals. They are being kept for no reason."

Camp officials deny anyone was beaten and insist they are not trying to break the hunger strike. They said strikers are kept in single cells so that guards who deliver their food trays can keep track of how much they eat.

The hunger strike had dwindled to 66 participants by Wednesday, with 42 being tube-fed at least some of the time, House said. Nurses, medics and camp officials said all the hunger strikers eat occasional meals.

Prisoners' lawyers accuse the military of downplaying the hunger strike, while camp officials accuse the prisoners and their advocates of exaggerating it for political effect.

"We're not the bad people. But the whole world makes it like we're the bad people and they're the good people," said Zak, the cultural adviser.

He said "instigators and troublemakers" among the prisoners had pledged that there would never be an end to the hunger strikes. "We'll be like the thorn in your throats," Zak quoted them as saying.

About five prisoners have been on a near-constant hunger strike for eight years. Medics who have tube-feed them to keep them alive say the hunger strike is a protest against indefinite detention and not a suicide attempt.

"Starvation is a terrible way to die. No one wants that," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael, a Navy hospital corpsman who didn't want his full name used.

Some of the chronic long-term hunger strikers have suffered osteoporosis and bowel problems as a result of extended fasting, and are at risk of heart damage, a medical officer at the detainee hospital said.

The officers at Guantanamo are waiting to see whether the burst of attention from Washington will produce a concrete plan to shut down the camp, as Obama said he would do by 2010.

Some staff at the base have suggested the prisoners might end the hunger strike if they see transfers resuming. Rear Admiral Richard Butler, who took command of the detention operation two weeks ago, isn't so sure.

"It could be goodness for everybody or it could just increase the appetite for more rapid action by everybody," he said.

(Editing by David Adams and Prudence Crowther)

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