More prisoners have joined a hunger strike that began on February 6 at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay. Striking prisoners say they are protesting more intrusive searches of their cells and open-ended confinement without charge.
According to Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the prison, 28 out of 166 prisoners are on strike, marking one of the most sustained protests the base has had in several years. The prison’s medical staff is closely monitoring the health of all prisoners, and ten of the strikers are being force-fed to prevent dangerous weight loss.
Differences in the notion of what constitutes a “hunger strike” have provoked sharp disagreement between the military and the detainees’ lawyers about how many prisoners are participating. Under the U.S. military’s formal definition, developed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, being on strike includes missing nine consecutive meals—in other words, abstaining from eating three days in a row. Lawyers for detainees claim that the military is significantly undercounting the number of strikers and say that the majority of the detainees in Camps Five and Six have been refusing to eat for weeks.
In response to these claims, Durand said that some prisoners who are refusing their meals have been observed eating food provided by other sources, and that others have covered up the security cameras in their cells to make it more difficult to track their eating.
The reasons for the strike are also in dispute. Lawyers say their clients’ complaints are motivated by an intrusive cell search in early February in which guards touched and inspected their Korans for contraband—an act that is considered a religious desecration. Detainees are also protesting the uncertain legal status of the majority of the prisoners, as well as restrictions on transfers, which have nearly halted any departures from the base. Military officials say there has been no change in the way searches are conducted at Guantánamo and that the hunger strike is an attempt to attract media coverage.
Hunger strikes have occurred at Guantánamo since shortly after it opened in January 2002. The largest one began in the summer of 2005 and reached a peak of 131 prisoners, when the facility held about 500 detainees. A delegation from the International Committee for the Red Cross made an urgent visit to Guantánamo this week to meet with hunger strikers and determine the gravity of the situation on the ground.
Franklin Brito, a farmer in the southern Venezuelan state of Bolivar, died Monday night while protesting the government sanctioned takeover of his farm in 2000 under President Hugo Chávez’s land reform policies. Mr. Brito had failed to regain his land from the government for the past decade despite numerous appeals and several previous hunger strikes that began in 2005. Mr. Brito passed away in a military hospital where he had been forcibly interned for his own safety, according to government officials.
Brito’s claims had initially garnered the support of Chávez who publicly supported him and called for government officials to rectify the situation. However, the government made no further attempts to satisfy Brito’s land dispute. Eventually, the government turned against Brito and accused him of having mental health problems. Venezuela’s minister for agriculture and land, Juan Carlos Loyo, stated publicly that Mr. Brito was being used by opponents of Hugo Chávez and his administration for political ends.
Brito had been placed in a medically induced coma last Friday to treat a respiratory condition, according to government sources, and also suffered from severe liver and kidney damage. Authorities claim he collapsed and that attempts were made to revive him before he was pronounced dead at 9 p.m. on Monday evening.
Indigenous community leaders on Monday staged a take-over of Santiago-based radio station Bío-Bío to protest the station’s failure to report on the hunger strike of 32 Mapuche activists. The protesters demanded that Radio Bío-Bío air an interview with a spokesperson for the prisoners, who began their hunger strike on July 12. The take-over occurred one week after internal government documents surfaced alleging links between Mapuche activists, the Chilean Communist Party, and Colombian guerrilla groups.
Mapuche activists have consistently challenged the Chilean government’s purported militarization of the southern region of Araucanía, which is the ancestral homeland of 650,000 Mapuches. The strong police presence in the region, they claim, is exacerbated by what they believe are the exploitative practices of multinational logging and mining companies.
Many of the jailed activists were arrested for illegal land occupations or attacks on the equipment or personnel of multinational companies, both of which are considered acts of terrorism under the Pinochet-era Anti-Terrorism Law, No.19.027. The hunger strike is in direct protest of the law, which protesters say allows the state to hold people for up to two years without charges, restricts defense attorneys’ access to evidence, and use testimony from anonymous witnesses.
Since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990, this law has been applied to Mapuche activists. The Chilean government maintains that the law is not being applied unfairly, and that the acts of the terrorists, regardless of their ethnicity, must be tried to the fullest extent of the law.
The European Union yesterday called on the Cuban Government to immediately release all political prisoners and urged EU institutions to give their “unconditional support to the launching of a peaceful process of political transition to multi-party democracy in Cuba.” The statement comes after the death last month of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, due to hunger strike.
The National Assembly of Cuba did not wait to respond to the resolution saying the EU was, “manipulating sentiments, distorting facts, deceiving people and obscuring reality." The Cuban declaration stressed that medical efforts were made to save Zapata’s life.
One reprecussion of the EU resolution is being felt in Spain, where its representative to the European Congress Willy Meyer commented that the scenario will complicate Spain’s efforts to improve the EU relations with Cuba and the end the European common position on Cuba.
Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas, spoke with the Organization of American States (OAS) yesterday to discuss how the OAS can help to end a hunger strike that has spread to include over a dozen city employees since it began last Friday. The mayor—a member of the opposition to President Hugo Chávez—is protesting Chávez’ violation of democratic rights and has asked OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza to create a high-level commission that would visit the country and analyze the “gravity of the situation.”
Ledezma’s chief complaint is that President Chávez has stripped away his executive responsibilities by naming Jacqueline Faría as the chief of government of Caracas, a post that has complete veto power over the mayor’s actions. Chávez also has limited Ledezma’s access to state funds, leaving over 22,000 city employees without a paycheck for the past eight months. The President has taken similar actions against opposition governors, taking away their power to administer schools and hospitals.
The Venezuelan government denies Ledezma’s accusations and claims that his hunger strike is a stunt to attract media attention.