Twenty-four of the 166 detainees at the Guantanamo Bay camp in Cuba are said to be on a hunger strike, but maybe not in the truest definition of the phrase.
In a briefing with Pentagon reporters today, Gen. John Kelly, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, described it more as “hunger strike-lite.” He labeled as “nonsense” claims by some of the detainees’ attorneys that the hunger strike is in response to the mishandling of Korans at the facility.
“Generally speaking, we think about 24 of them are on, say, hunger strike-lite, where they’re eating a bit but not a lot,” Kelly said. “But they’ve declared that they’re not eating.”
He said Guantanamo handlers define a hunger strike as missing nine meals in a row.
Kelly says the 24 detainees have declared they are on a hunger strike either because they have decided “that they need to be heard perhaps more than they have been” or in a bid to “regain some attention.”
He explained that detainees at Guantanamo are held in individual cells or in a communal setting. The detainees housed in the cells receive individual meals but those in the communal setting receive food provided in bulk.
“Often, it’s semi-prepared, sometimes not prepared, they prepare it themselves to their own taste and whatnot,” Kelly said. “So it’s kind of hard for us to say that, you know, detainee number one, two, whatever, is not eating nine meals in a row. And we have observation into the communal area and into the cells and we can see what they’re up to and all.”
Of the claims that Korans were mishandled by Guantanamo personnel in recent weeks, Kelly said, “It’s nonsense. There’s absolutely no mishandling of the Korans.”
He said there is nothing wrong with non-Muslims handling a Koran. He described how several times during his deployments to Iraq he was presented with copies of the Koran as gifts.
That said, he said Guantanamo officials ensure that the only personnel who can touch a Koran are the Muslim translators who work there. “No way has a Koran in any way, shape or form been in any way abused or mistreated, so their claims are nonsense,” he said.
Kelly seemed to attribute the detainees’ actions to a combination of factors, namely that Guantanamo is not mentioned publicly by the Obama administration these days. Other than participating in the hunger strike, he said, the detainees did not seem to be “acting out in any way that’s really unusual for them.”
There are eight detainees who are routinely force fed but don’t seem to be on real hunger strikes, he said. “We have eight of the detainees that present themselves daily, calmly and in totally cooperative way to be fed through a tube.
“We also know they’re eating when they’re in the cells. And I think that’s just in their cases, just their attempt at some level of resistance to demonstrate their displeasure at what’s going on. So that’s the way we see it.”