KINGSTON, JAMAICA — U.S. military officials at the Guantanamo Bay prison announced Monday that they will stop releasing daily hunger strike updates because they say the number of protesters has steadily dropped to a core group of 19 defiant prisoners.
For months, the U.S. military has issued reports each day listing the number of hunger strikers during one of the most sustained protests at the prison on the U.S. naval base in Cuba. The prison opened in January 2002 to hold “enemy combatants” in the early days of the war in Afghanistan.
Monday’s statement from a Joint Task Force Guantanamo official said the number of hunger strikers has significantly diminished since a peak in early July, when 106 inmates had joined the strike out of a then total prison population of 166. There are now 19 inmates tracked as hunger strikers among the current 164 detainees, the U.S. military said. The tally has remained the same for almost two weeks.
“We believe today’s numbers represent those who wish to continue to strike,” said Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, a Guantanamo spokesman.
Eighteen of those prisoners are on the “enteral feed list,” meaning they can be strapped down and fed a liquid nutrient mix through a nasal tube. According to the military’s latest figures, no hunger striking inmates are being observed in a base hospital.
The U.S. military requires a minimum of three days of sustained eating and a minimal caloric intake before prisoners can be removed from the tally.
The number of striking inmates began to climb in February. By April, more than half of the prisoners held at Guantanamo had joined the protest to draw attention to their conditions and indefinite detention.
Hunger strikes have been a fixture at Guantanamo since shortly after it opened. One in the summer of 2005 reached a peak of around 131 detainees, when the facility held roughly 500 men. That protest led the military to adopt a policy of strapping prisoners down to be force-fed a liquid nutrient mix to prevent starvation.
The sustained hunger strike this year prompted President Barack Obama to criticize the force-feedings and renew his efforts to close the U.S. prison. Amid global pressure, Obama vowed to close the prison, but Congress enacted legislation that prohibited the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. and made it harder to send them abroad.
David Remes, a Washington-based lawyer who represents several Guantanamo prisoners, said he believes the hunger strikers achieved their objectives.
“The hunger strike refocused national attention on Guantanamo and spurred President Obama to renew his efforts to close the prison,” Remes said in an email Monday.
Jon B. Eisenberg, a defense attorney for hunger-striking prisoners who are challenging their confinement in U.S. courts, said it’s impossible to know for certain whether the military’s tally is accurate, “given the government’s complete control” over information about the prison.
“In any case, it is undisputable that mass force-feeding, which is a human rights violation, is still happening at Guantanamo Bay on a daily basis,” Eisenberg said, referring to the 18 prisoners on the enteral feed list.
From Guantanamo, House said medical officials will continue to monitor and evaluate the inmates’ health.