The U.S. government said it will respect the religious traditions of the hunger strikers at the Guantanamo Bay prison by shifting force-feedings to nighttime hours during the holy month of Ramadan.
A spokesman for the prison said last week that feedings would be administered at night to keep with the Muslim custom of not eating or drinking anything during daylight hours for an entire month. In years past, prisoners who wished to observe Ramadan have been given their meals after dark. “We are confident that we will be able to provide life-preserving enteral feeds where necessary without violating a fundamental tenet of the Islamic faith,” Navy Captain Robert Durand said in an interview with the Miami Herald.
Ramadan is considered to be the holiest month of the Islamic calendar; in the Koran, it is when the prophet Muhammad first received revelations from God. Muslims around the world refrain from eating or drinking anything during daylight hours and spend time in prayer and reflection.
A judge rejected Monday a suit brought by four hunger-striking prisoners who had hoped the U.S. judicial system would step in and stop the force-feeding before Ramadan began, saying she lacked the authority to force the prison to alter its policies. However, federal judge Gladys Kessler strongly condemned the process, calling it “painful, humiliating and degrading.” She also pointed out that President Obama has the ability to stop the force-feeding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Forty-five of the 106 prisoners currently on hunger strike are being force-fed via tubes inserted into their noses. The force-feeding process is time-consuming and arduous, and advocates for the detainees raised concerns last week that prison medical staff would not be able to administer all of the feedings during the course of the night.
A human rights group released a new report and a graphic video depicting the force-feeding process to raise awareness of the current plight of the men held there as the Muslim holy month begins.
The report, released Wednesday by UK-based human rights organization Reprieve, alleges that authorities at the prison routinely use violent tactics in an attempt to break the hunger strike. Hunger strikers said that prison staff used unnecessary force during feedings, require invasive genital searches before a detainee would be allowed to leave his cell to take phone calls, and keep them isolated in solitary confinement as a matter of course, among other allegations.
Reprieve also released a video of actor and rapper Yasiin Bey, formerly Mos Def, undergoing a force-feeding as part of a campaign to raise awareness and build solidarity with the detainees. A spokesperson for the prison criticized the video as inaccurate, although it is widely acknowledged that detainees are restrained and a tube is inserted through the nose into their stomachs during the process.
Some prisoners who are not participating in the hunger strike have seen improvements in their living conditions. Some 40 men were taken off months of almost constant lockdown and allowed to sometimes eat and pray together. As the Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg reported, these "privileges" were restored as part of a "Ramadan Pardon."
The 86 prisoners who have been cleared for transfer or release have yet to see any progress with their cases, and there remains widespread political opposition to closing Guantanamo and relocating the prisoners. President Obama named Clifford Sloan to be the State Department's special envoy for closing Guantanamo in June, but the administration has yet to appoint a Pentagon envoy to work with Sloan to close the prison.
Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Dick Durbin of Illinois sent a letter to the president on Wednesday pressing him to end the large-scale force-feedings and to follow U.S. Bureau of Prison force-feeding guidelines in cases where a prisoner’s life is in danger. They also urged the administration to articulate a plan to close the prions.
“The growing problem of hunger strikes is due to the fact that many detainees have remained in legal limbo for more than a decade and have given up hope,” the letter read. “This should be alarming to all of us, and it is imperative that the Administration outline a formal process to permanently close the Guantanamo facility as soon as possible."
Feinstein has recently been one of the most outspoken advocates for closing the prison. She traveled to Guantanamo Bay last month with Sen. John McCain and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to inspect conditions there and sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel pointing out that “hunger strikes are a long known form of non-violent protest” and asking him to reevaluate the force-feeding policies.