PENTAGON — Officials at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, say a detainee hunger strike is growing. Thirty-one inmates are now taking part in the strike. The U.S. military says it has begun force-feeding at least 11 of them.
Officials at the Joint Task Force Guantanamo detention facility say that between six and 12 detainees are on hunger strike during any given month at the prison but that the number of those refusing to eat has grown.
The hunger strike began after prison guards last month conducted what officials say was a routine search of the detainees’ belongings in which the detainees allege that guards desecrated copies of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, by touching them.
The case drew international media attention after the detainees’ lawyers complained.
A facility spokesman, Navy Captain Robert Durand, says the protest grew from six to more than 30.
“As the word of the hunger strike [was] getting out in the media, the detainees who can watch satellite television saw that they were getting some attention and the hunger strike has grown," said Durand. "So, it sort of grew on itself as the detainees achieved their ends of getting media attention and we believe that’s the goal of the detainees is to elicit attention through the media.”
Officials at the detention facility say the search in February was done according to procedure and that guards did not touch the Muslim holy books.
The inmates’ demands include an apology from the detention facility authorities, and new rules exempting Qurans from being searched.
Durand says those are demands that detention facility officials cannot meet.
“We’re not going to admit to Quran abuse which didn’t take place," he said. "We’re not going to exempt the Quran for search because it’s the perfect place to hide things that could be used to injure themselves or guards, and we’ll continue to conduct those searches in a respectful manner as we have for 11 years.”
Durand says the detainees have offered to turn in their Qurans - a measure that prison officials reject out of concern that they might be portrayed as depriving the inmates of religious articles.
Lawyers for the detainees say they believe the number of detainees taking part in the hunger strike is higher than what U.S. military officials are reporting.
One hundred and 66 detainees are being held at the facility at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay as enemy combatants without trial. The facility has been the subject of longstanding protests by U.S. and international human rights activists.