Image: Guantanamo Bay detention center
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Lawyers for the U.S. government say that Guantanamo Bay prisoner Abdul Rahman Shalabi is showing signs of improvement.
updated 10/6/2010 4:31:14 AM ET 2010-10-06T08:31:14

A Guantanamo prisoner who has been on a hunger strike for more than five years is occasionally eating solid food, but is still underweight and suffering from a medical condition likely caused by his protest, officials say in recently filed court documents.

Saudi prisoner Abdul Rahman Shalabi has begun to ease the detention center's longest hunger strike by eating sporadically — and at times surreptitiously — though he is still classified as a hunger striker and is fed with a liquid nutrient mix through a nasal tube at the prison hospital, military officials said in documents filed Monday with a court in Washington.

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Shalabi has been held at Guantanamo since January 2002 following his capture by Pakistani troops at the Afghanistan border. The U.S. government has said he is suspected of being a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, but he has not been charged. He denies any affiliation with al-Qaida and his attorneys have asked a judge to order that he be returned to his country.

Shalabi has begun to eat such things as pasta, bread, cake, seafood, baklava, cookies, peanut butter, cheese and ice cream, said Navy Capt. Monte Bible, who commands the Joint Medical Group at Guantanamo, in an affidavit that accompanies a government motion to prevent medical experts hired by the prisoner's attorneys from being dispatched to examine and treat him at the U.S. base in Cuba.

Bible, who is also a doctor, said the prisoner has rejected more nutritional items from the prison menu as medical authorities try to get him to maintain and regain his weight.

"We have seen progress in his eating recently and I am confident that will continue," Bible said.

Medical records included with the government's motion show the prisoner's weight was as low as 101 pounds — 67 percent of his ideal body weight — in September, though it increased slightly later in the month. Doctors have also diagnosed Shalabi with gastroparesis, a condition that significantly slows digestion. Bible said it was apparently caused by a weakening of his abdominal muscles as a result of the fast.

Slideshow: Life goes on in Guantanamo (on this page)

The condition causes constipation, bloating and abdominal pain, but it may go away as Shalabi begins to eat more solid food, Bible said.

Attorneys for Shalabi last month asked the court to order the military to allow two medical specialists to travel to Guantanamo to assess the prisoner's medical and psychiatric status and provide treatment. His attorneys say they believe he is more likely to work with doctors not associated with the prison and that he needs treatment to assist with legal efforts to gain his release.

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Shalabi's lawyers say in their motion that he has eaten "high-fat foods, such as peanut butter, ice cream and cheese" but also express concern about the potentially dangerous long-term effects of his hunger strike.

"For months, Mr. Shalabi's weight has hovered around a dangerous line," one of his attorneys, Jana Ramsey, said in an affidavit.

Lawyers for the government argued that outside experts are unnecessary in part because the prisoner has cooperated with medical personnel at Guantanamo and is showing signs of improvement. It is unclear when the judge might rule.

Slideshow: Inside Guantanamo’s walls (on this page)

Shalabi's lawyers declined further comment and the military will not discuss details about any individual prisoner at Guantanamo, where the U.S. now holds about 170 men. The court documents are noteworthy because of the information they provide about a protest largely hidden from public view.

Shalabi, 34, was part of a group that started a hunger strike in August 2005 to protest conditions and indefinite confinement. The strike eventually dwindled to just two men as prison officials, worried that men might starve to death, began strapping them down and feeding them by force. Shalabi and others eventually started largely cooperating with the tube feedings and the protest turned into a long stalemate.

Daily medical logs submitted with the government's motion show that Shalabi has apparently eaten solid food as far back as February, when a guard reported seeing him eat a granola bar behind a newspaper, trying to shield himself from view.

That same month the military reported he received seven Slim Jims — a dried meat snack — and a pack of gum from a visiting attorney. The next month he reportedly received a sticky bun from night guards at the hospital, where the military says he has his own flat screen television with a satellite connection. An entry in July says he ate grapes, spaghetti with meat sauce, two pieces of baklava and a banana.

When he came to Guantanamo, the prisoner who is 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighed 124 pounds.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Guantanamo Bay detention center

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  1. A U.S. military guard arrives for work at Camp Delta in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. Two days after his inauguration in January 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the facility in one year and review each detainee’s case individually, but he has missed the deadline by months and has struggled to transfer, try or release the remaining detainees. (These pictures have been reviewed by the U.S. military.) (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6 in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. The U.S. military currently holds 183 detainees at Guantanamo, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The detention center has held nearly 780 detainees in an assortment of camps that were built to accommodate different levels of security. In Camp 6, detainees spend at least 22 hours a day in single-occupancy cells. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. In this picture, a detainee stands in Guantanamo’s Camp 6, his face obscured by a wire fence. There are strict rules on the publication of photographs of detainees – any distinguishing features or clear pictures of detainees’ faces are not allowed past Guantanamo’s gates. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A detainee reads a magazine in the library at Camp 6. One of the obstacles President Obama faces in shutting down the detention facility is that Congress has blocked funding for a plan that would transfer some detainees to a prison in the United States. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Department of Justice is currently reviewing each detainee’s case individually and categorizing them into three groups: those who face trial, those who will be transferred to detention facilities in other countries, and those who are deemed a danger but cannot released or tried because of sensitive evidence – and must continue to be held. There are 48 detainees in this category. Here, detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. In this photo, a detainee attends a class in "life skills" inside Camp 6. In November 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Sept. 11 suspects would be prosecuted in a federal court in New York City, setting off a heated debate that put the White House on the defense and has forced it to reconsider the plan. The Obama administration has also designated six detainees for trial by military tribunal, including Canadian Omar Khadr, whose trial will be the first at Guantanamo during the Obama presidency. (Brennan Linsley / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A U.S. Navy guard prepares to escort a detainee after a "life skills" class in Camp 6. Meantime, the war crimes tribunal convened in Guantanamo on April 28, 2010, to decide what evidence can be used against Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was just 15 when he was detained in Afghanistan in 2002. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Congressional Republicans and some Democrats oppose the plan to prosecute detainees in federal courts because that would give suspects full U.S. legal rights and could lead to the release of dangerous terrorists. Supporters, however, say military courts unfairly limit defendants’ rights and contend that federal courts are just as capable of bringing suspects to justice. In this photo, U.S. Army guards are briefed at the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A U.S. Army soldier patrols past a guard tower at Camp Delta. A final difficulty in closing the detention facility is skepticism about how well some countries would monitor and rehabilitate detainees transferred there – and whether they would be at risk of being recruited into terror networks. Yemen, in particular, is under scrutiny after the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is believed to have been trained by al-Qaida in Yemen. The Obama administration has since suspended all transfers to Yemen. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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