MIAMI — The chief of the U.S. Southern Command, fresh from a weekend trip to Guantanamo, said Tuesday there’s nothing the military can do to resolve the hunger strike by more than 100 captives demanding their release and the prison’s closure.
The protest will continue “until they get tired of doing what they’re doing,” said Marine Gen. John Kelly, adding that 50 to 60 of the 166 detainees regularly seek private meetings with the military and that, in his analysis, the power to end the hunger strike is “entirely in their hands.”
As of Tuesday, the prison staff said that 103 captives were on hunger strike at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba, and 38 of them were getting tube feedings from Navy medical workers, two in the detention center hospital.
But the general took issue with the description by President Barack Obama and others that the military is force-feeding the captives at Guantanamo. Hunger strikers who fall below a certain body weight are taken twice a day to a feeding chair and given a choice: Eat, or have a tube snaked up your nostril and down the back of your throat and have a can of Ensure pumped inside.
“They’re all eating something,” Kelly said, adding that some detainees in the prison supervised by Southcom will drink a dose of Ensure through a straw rather than by the tube.
He called Guantanamo’s current protest a “hunger strike light.”
On May 23, in a policy address at the National Defense University, Obama renewed his first-term vow to empty and close the prison and lamented the ongoing hunger strike.
“Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are?” Obama said.
“Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?”
Kelly was asked about the remark while he took questions from reporters on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon outpost that started out in Panama and moved to Miami’s Doral suburbs in 1997.
“We don’t force-feed right now at Gitmo,” the Marine general said.
Instead, he adopted the Guantanamo euphemism of “enterally feeding,” a military medical term for the tube-snaking procedure.
Asked whether the president was wrong, he said, “We have yet to force-feed this go-around” — an apparent reference to another mass hunger strike in 2006 when, according to a current prison camp spokesman, 30 hunger strikers on average were “enterally fed.”
At the White House, national security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden was asked whether Obama would retract his remarks about forced feedings.
“The president’s comments stand,” she said in response to a question from The Miami Herald. “As you know, President Obama has tried to close Guantanamo, and transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries, or imprisoning them in the United States.”
Kelly said the military had nothing to offer the men to resolve the hunger strike. Their sole demand, he said, was closure of the prison and to be released.
“What we do at Guantanamo is carry out the policy of our government,” the general said, adding his support for the “heroic young men and women” who guard and give medical treatment to detainees who, he said, assault and insult them.
Defense lawyer Carlos Warner, representing 11 captives, said that while the hunger strikers naturally want their freedom, their demands are more modest.
They want “a dialogue about the Quran,” said Warner, and to be allowed “to live communally and get back their items, like family photos.”
Warner and other defense attorneys say the hunger strike began after guards went through the captives’ cells Feb. 6-7 at Camp 6, Guantanamo’s largest prison building, where captives once lived communally. The soldiers, according to the detainees, disrespected the holy book and seized intimate personal property.
The prison says it seized contraband, including weapons, and treated the Quran respectfully — but has so far refused to let The Miami Herald review videos made of the searches.
Now, all but 14 or 15 of the 166 captives are in single-cell lockdown most of the day for what Kelly called “acting up” and “trying to harm themselves.”
Warner said the general’s remarks suggested that “at this point, there probably needs to be a mediator to facilitate a dialogue between the men and the military.”
An independent mediator, such as a defense lawyer who some detainees “know and trust,” said Warner, is needed to end “a vicious cycle” of claim and counterclaim.
“They just don’t trust this command,” he said.