American activists camping out at a Cuban military checkpoint outside the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay started their first day of a water-only fast Monday to protest the treatment of suspected terrorists held at the base.
Members of the largely Christian group Witness Against Torture are demanding access to the prisoner camp to meet with inmates. The activists arrived late Sunday at the checkpoint, which is about five miles from the U.S. base, after a five-day march from the eastern Cuban city of Santiago.
“We can see the windmills of the U.S. base, we can see some lights off in the distance,” Frida Berrigan, 31, said on her cell phone.
“We’re not right next door, but we are closer to these prisoners than their family members have been since they were arrested.”
Berrigan is the daughter of the late Phil Berrigan, a former Roman Catholic priest whose protests against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons helped ignite a generation of anti-war dissent.
Stacey Byington, a civilian spokeswoman for U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, said those inside the facility could not see the protesters and only knew of their presence through media reports.
“Day-to-day activities of the base and its residents are not affected,” Byington said in an e-mail message to The Associated Press, adding that access to the base is limited to those with official or authorized business.
32 prisoners on hunger strike
The Guantanamo detention center has become a symbol of the controversy over prisoner abuse by the U.S. military. Thirty-two prisoners are on hunger strike to protest what they say is cruel and inhumane treatment.
Twenty-five of those prisoners are being fed through tubes.
U.S. officials insist the hundreds of prisoners held at Guantanamo are treated humanely at the remote base on Cuba’s eastern tip. The government says they are enemy combatants, not prisoners of war, and are not entitled to the same rights afforded under the Geneva Conventions.
The prisoners’ hunger strike is part of what inspired the 25 American activists to travel to the island, where most of them arrived Monday from the Dominican Republic.
They ate their last meal Sunday night before bunkering down in tents outside the checkpoint, which is on the edge of a miles-wide Cuban military zone peppered with mines surrounding the U.S. installations. They say they will stay there up to a week awaiting a response.
State Dept. scolds group
Last week, the U.S. State Department issued a statement scolding the group for not focusing on rights abuses in Cuba.
“These protesters, as they march through Cuba, are ignoring one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, and its systematic and institutionalized violations of human rights,” the statement said. “They have not acknowledged the nearly 300 peaceful dissidents who today are languishing in Cuban jails under horrific conditions.”
During their 66-mile march from Santiago, the activists slept in Cubans’ backyards and at farms. Response from local citizens has been positive so far, Berrigan said.
“I think we’ve seen a lot of gratitude on the part of people we’ve encountered (for the fact) that Americans are taking responsibility for an American problem, for the torture and the impunity and the lawlessness of what purports to be the world’s largest democracy,” she said.
Activist Grace Ritter said the group was urging Americans to call the base and President Bush to demand that Witness Against Torture representatives have access to the prisoners.
“If there isn’t any torture going on as President Bush has said, then they should feel comfortable allowing us in and showing us around,” said Ritter, 24, of Ithaca, N.Y.