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Ice cream, baklava, cheese: Gitmo hunger strike ends

A Guantanamo prisoner who has been on a hunger strike for more than five years is occasionally eating solid food, officials say in recently filed court documents.
Image: Guantanamo Bay detention center
Lawyers for the U.S. government say that Guantanamo Bay prisoner Abdul Rahman Shalabi is showing signs of improvement.John Moore / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

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.

Guantanamo Bay detention center

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Guantanamo Bay detention center

President Obama's one-year deadline to close the facility has long passed as shutting it down has proven complicated and controversial.

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.

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.

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.