For more than three months, the US military has faced off with defiant prisoners on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay, strapping down as many as 44 each day to feed them a liquid nutrient mix through a nasal tube.
The standoff, which prompted President Barack Obama to renew his call to close the detention centre, has grown to involve 104 of the 166 prisoners as of Saturday.
Yet the experience of a former detainee shows a hunger strike at the centre can be as indefinite as the open-ended detention that is at the heart of nearly every conflict at Guantanamo.
The men undergoing forced-feeding are not permitted to speak to reporters, but Ahmed Zuhair knows what the experience is like.
Until he was released from US custody in 2009, he and another prisoner had the distinction of staging the longest hunger strikes at the prison. Zuhair kept at it for four years in a showdown that at times turned violent.
The military acknowledges a “forced cell extraction team” was repeatedly used to move him when he refused to walk on his own to where striking detainees were fed. He says his nasal passages and back are permanently damaged from the way he was strapped down and fed through a naso-gastric tube.
Court papers show that Zuhair once racked up 80 disciplinary infractions in four months, refusing to be force-fed among them, and that he and fellow prisoners smeared themselves with their faeces for five days to keep guards at bay and protest rough treatment.
Zuhair — a former sheep merchant who was never charged with any crime during seven years at Guantanamo — stopped eating in Jun 2005, and kept up his protest until he was sent home to Saudi Arabia in 2009.
“Not once did the thought occur to me to stop my hunger strike,” he says now. “Not once.” He spoke to The Associated Press in a telephone interview along with his lawyer, Ramzi Kassem.
The 47-year-old Zuhair lives with his wife and children in the Muslim holy city of Mecca. He said he doesn’t get much news about Guantanamo in Saudi Arabia, but that the world should not be surprised that prisoners are back on strike.
“The men there today are going through the same experience and they are suffering just as much, and so they probably will not stop either,” he said.
Since the prison opened in 2002, seven prisoners have committed suicide. It’s the policy of the US department of defence to try to keep strikers alive.
The feeding procedure is considered safe and its use has been upheld by the courts, said navy captain Robert Durand, spokesman for the detention centre.
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