SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The U.S. military says it has been force-feeding three Guantanamo Bay detainees on a hunger strike, but insists the protest has dwindled to its fewest participants since it began last summer.
Four prisoners are on hunger strike, including the three being force-fed with nasal tubes, Guantanamo spokesman Lt. Col. Jeremy Martin said Wednesday.
All four are in stable condition, according to Martin, who declined to speculate why detainees may have chosen to drop out of the protest.
"We haven't changed anything. Our processes and procedures are the same," he said. "But the numbers have fluctuated."
The military said the strike began with 76 detainees protesting their confinement at the remote, high-security prison in Cuba and that the number joining the protest reached 131 in mid-September. Defense lawyers say the figures have been higher.
One possible reason for the discrepancy is that the military counts define a hunger strike as missing nine consecutive meals, but some detainees may eat just enough to avoid that classification so they won't be force-fed, said Julia Tarver Mason, a lawyer for 13 Saudis at the prison camp.
Prisoners on the hunger strike have alleged in court documents that the feeding tubes have been roughly inserted and withdrawn in an abusive manner — an allegation the military has denied.
Mason, who represents one prisoner still on strike and was scheduled to visit him this month, said the four officially listed as part of the strike are in the most serious condition and are protesting on behalf of other detainees at Guantanamo, where the United States holds some 500 people on suspicion of links to al-Qaida or Afghanistan's ousted Taliban government.
"It's not about the numbers," she said. "I don't think it's a situation in which some people have gone off the strike because they believe conditions have improved at Guantanamo."
Stephen Oleskey, a defense attorney who visited the base last month, said some of his clients, Algerians who were arrested in Bosnia, told him they had seen hunger strikers who were "emaciated" and needed help to walk.
Martin, who called the protest an "al-Qaida tactic" to elicit media attention and to pressure the U.S. government, said that the strikers have access to the International Committee of the Red Cross and are permitted to send and receive mail.