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How Ramadan Affects Guantanamo Bay Detainees' Hunger Strike


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. At the Guantanamo Bay Prison it has been a chaotic few months, with many detainees on a hunger strike. Now, with the beginning of Ramadan, some have ended their strike. But things remain tense. Many prisoners are being force-fed after dark since during the holy month, Muslims are forbidden to eat during the day.

All of this is playing out as the debate goes on over when, and whether, to close the prison. To learn more, we turn to Carol Rosenberg, of the Miami Herald. She has spent a lot of time reporting on the prison.

You had some pretty striking lines in one of your recent stories. You wrote that things at Guantanamo were improving over Ramadan because two captives quit their hunger strike, and 24 hours passed without a single detainee throwing bodily fluid at a guard. I mean, it sounds like things had gotten so bad people are really looking for even the smallest signs of encouragement.

CAROL ROSENBERG: It sounded a little bit like a cease-fire. The other half of it was, the guards haven't been tackling and shackling the detainees to get them out of their cell, which is part of the tug of war that's gone on there during this hunger strike.

GREENE: What's happening in this cease-fire, as you describe it?

ROSENBERG: Well, the military has changed the rules a little bit. They have said if you want to be able to pray in groups, to break the fast in groups, you have to commit to not hunger-strike. Hunger-striking at Guantanamo is a little different than, I think, people really imagine it. It doesn't mean they never eat. It means that they mostly don't eat. And the Navy Medical Corps down there is figuring out who is losing weight, having suffered such malnutrition that they've put them on the hunger strike list.

Now, 26 have apparently committed to eat. So there's 80 on a hunger strike; about half the prisoners. And there's 46 on the list for forced-feedings - meaning, they will shackle you; take you out of your cell; put you into a restraint chair, where you are strapped in; and this tube will be inserted up your nose, down the back of your throat and into your stomach, to have a can of Ensure put in.

GREENE: And the force-feeding, Carol Rosenberg, not the only thing taking place that has drawn criticism. A judge wrote some serious questions about the pat-downs that go on at the prison. Tell me about that.

ROSENBERG: About a year ago, the way they accomplished searching men as they went to see their attorneys, was with wandings and modified pat-downs. Since then, a mentally ill detainee committed suicide by overdose of drugs. And the guards wondered if he hadn't hid these drugs in a personal area. And so they extremely aggressively, have started searching their privates.

The lawyers came back and said, you're only doing this to the men as they go to and from legal meetings and now, they don't want to see us. Well, the judge agreed with the lawyers and said, you cut it out. It was one of the first times that a federal judge has said to the military, you can't do that down there.

GREENE: Well, and as the government appeals that decision from the judge, more broadly - I mean, President Obama has spoken about closing Guantanamo. And he recently appointed Clifford Sloan to oversee the transfer of Guantanamo inmates out of the prison and back to their countries. And that was a position that was empty for a long time. And what does this signal?

ROSENBERG: That the hunger strike seems to have worked; that they've gotten enough attention, that the president has recommitted to trying to find a way to work with Congress to get people out of there. Now, we have a new closer - as they call him - a special envoy trying to figure out a way to move men out to safe - possibly detention elsewhere; or back to their home countries, where governments like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, will keep an eye on them to make sure that they aren't so angry at us that they've spent the last 12 years at Guantanamo, that they will seek to attack U.S. targets again.

GREENE: Yeah, and we should say that that's the argument of members of Congress. They're not convinced that these men - or at least, some of them - if they're released, won't go back and commit acts of terrorism against the United States.

ROSENBERG: Absolutely. Congress has concluded that they are all dangerous men 'cause somebody somewhere, let go, is going to become our nightmare. And so Congress seems to be satisfied with the idea of forever prisoners in a forever war. And they've got roughly 166 men pretty much locked in down there, regardless of their grades of guilt or maybe innocence, or potential for trial. And they want nobody let go.

GREENE: Carol, we know you're going to be returning to Guantanamo soon. We'll look forward to hearing more about your reporting. Thanks so much.

ROSENBERG: Thank you.

GREENE: Carol Rosenberg covers the prison at Guantanamo Bay for the Miami Herald. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.