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Desperate inmates protest conditions at U.S. prison camp
Hunger strike against horror at Guantánamo

By Nicole Colson | June 9, 2006 | Page 2

NEARLY 90 detainees at the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are protesting conditions and their indefinite detention by going on hunger strike.

This latest hunger strike, which U.S. military officials admitted involved at least 89 detainees as Socialist Worker went to press, was sparked off last month when as many as four prisoners were driven to attempt to commit suicide on May 18. That same day, when a group of about 10 prisoners in another section of the camp reportedly rioted after guards tried to prevent another detainee from hanging himself, the guards used pepper spray, rubber bullets and at least one "sponge grenade" to subdue them.

Navy Commander Robert Durand called the latest hunger strike at Guantánamo an "attention-getting" tactic to step up pressure for the inmates' release. But defense attorneys and human right activists say that the camp's estimated 460 detainees--many of whom have been imprisoned for four years with no end in sight--are under enormous psychological strain and increasingly desperate to put an end to their misery, even if that means suicide.

So far, only 10 Guantánamo prisoners have been charged with any crimes and face trial before military tribunals. The rest live in a legal limbo.

Hunger strikes have been used several times by dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of prisoners to protest their treatment at the hands of the U.S. When these hunger strikes have gained notice in the media, U.S. officials have responded with tactics that amount to little more than torture.

Last fall, for example, when as many as 210 prisoners went on hunger strike, the military began using force feedings to compel prisoners to stop their protests.

Defense lawyers said their clients reported that U.S. troops violently inserted dirty nasogastric tubes up detainees' noses and into their stomachs. "When they vomited up blood, the soldiers mocked and cursed at them, and taunted them with statements like 'Look what your religion has brought you,'" according to notes by defense lawyer Julia Tarver, which were declassified late last year.

The number of hunger-striking prisoners reportedly had recently dropped down to single digits. But now, with the numbers back on the rise, the military admits that at least six detainees are once again being subjected to force feedings--and that number is likely to go up if this latest hunger strike continues.

The most recent revelations about the number of detainees driven to hunger strike come as new allegations surface about the number of children that the U.S. has imprisoned at Guantánamo.

According to a recent report in Britain's Independent, as many as 60 children under the age of 18 may have been detained at the prison camp at various times over the past four years. At least 10 detainees still held at the camp are thought to have been 14 or 15 years old when they were first seized--"including child soldiers who were held in solitary confinement, repeatedly interrogated and allegedly tortured," reported the Independent.

One child, Mohamed el-Gharani, is alleged to have been involved in a 1998 al-Qaeda plot in London--but, according to the London-based human rights group Reprieve, he was just 12 years old at the time and living with his parents in Saudi Arabia. After being arrested in Karachi in October 2001 when he was 14 years old, el-Gharani was shipped to Guantánamo--where he has since spent several years in solitary confinement.

Another child, 15-year-old Canadian-born Omar Khadr, was arrested in 2002, accused of killing a U.S. soldier with a grenade. Khadr also has been kept in solitary confinement and placed at the top of the Bush administration's list of detainees to face prosecution.

Because detainees have been held for so long, all of the children thought to have been held at Guantánamo are now believed either to have reached their 18th birthdays or been released.

Both the United Nations (UN) and Geneva Conventions prohibit holding children in such detention centers, and the UN Committee on Torture recently called for Guantánamo to be shut down--in part because of interrogation techniques at the camp that it says constitute inhumane treatment.

Yet Pentagon officials defend the practice of imprisoning children at the camp. "There is no international standard concerning the age of an individual who engages in combat operations," senior Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Commander Jeffrey Gordon told the Independent. "Age is not a determining factor in detention [of those] engaged in armed conflict against our forces or in support to those fighting against us."

But as Clive Stafford Smith, a defense lawyer for several detainees and a legal director for Reprieve, said, "Even if these kids were involved in fighting--and Omar is the only one who the military pretends was--then there is a UN convention against the use of child soldiers. There is a general recognition in the civilized world that children should be treated differently from adults."

But there's nothing "civilized" about the U.S. treatment of prisoners in its "war on terror."

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