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Lawyers for Gitmo prisoners decry 'alarming' conditions at camp

A pre-dawn view of the U.S. detention center Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Oct. 18, 2012.
A pre-dawn view of the U.S. detention center Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Oct. 18, 2012.Michelle Shephard / AFP - Getty Images

Lawyers for terror suspects held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo, Cuba, said Tuesday that detainees are engaged in widespread protests of conditions at the prison, including a hunger strike that may imperil their lives.

Calling the situation “alarming,” the lawyers said in a statement that some of their clients are “coughing up blood” and “losing consciousness.”  A letter making similar assertions was sent earlier this week to Navy Rear Adm. John W. Smith, the commander of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo and signed by a dozen lawyers who represent most of the detainees at Guantanamo.  

A spokesman for U.S. military at Guantanamo   disputed the lawyers’ claims of a widespread hunger strike, saying they and their clients were merely trying to get attention and keep Guantanamo “in the news. ” 

The spokesman, Navy Capt. Robert Durand, said that a half-dozen detainees are currently on a hunger strike -- five of whom are being force fed through tubes -- and that no lives were in danger. Durand added that the figure was consistent with the average number of hunger strikers at Guantanamo over the past several years. He also acknowledged that “some detainees” have been disciplined and moved out of Camp 6 -- the most permissive of the camps at Guantanamo, with communal living arrangements -- but he declined to say how many or give the reasons for the action. 

The conflicting claims underscored the difficulty of obtaining information about conditions at the facility, which President Barack Obama vowed to shut down on his first day in office after his 2008 election but which still remains open as a result of congressional opposition to its closure. There are 166 detainees remaining at the camp, but military rules forbid them from communicating in any way with members of the news media and visits to the camp by outsiders are tightly regulated. Even their communications with their lawyers must be cleared by military censors.

One of those lawyers, David Remes, told NBC News in a telephone interview from Guantanamo Monday night that he saw one of his clients -- Hussain Almerfedi, a Yemeni -- earlier that day and that he had lost “substantial weight” and was “very sick.” Under Guantanamo rules, Remes said he could not share anything that his client told him until the censor cleared the communication. But he said that he offered Almerfedi some trail mix during their meeting and he declined to take it -- a sign,  Remes said,  that his client was participating in the hunger strike.

“The men are at their wit’s end,” he said. “This is their eleventh year of being there and they have no prospect for release.” He also said that since taking over last year as commander,  Adm. Smith had “turned the clock back” to 2002 and 2003, imposing harsher restrictions on the detainees and more-rigorous searches in which personal items were being seized. The searches are being carried out by guards -- some of whom are returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq -- who he asserted appear to be extracting vengeance for what they encountered overseas, he said.   

One flashpoint appears to have been a Feb. 6 search at Camp 6 in which, according to the lawyers, camp authorities seized blankets, sheets, towels, sleeping mats, razors and other items from the detainees,  including family photos and religious CDs from the detainees. In their letter to Smith, the lawyers alleged that Arabic interpreters at the camp inspected Qurans “in ways that constitute desecration.” 

Durand, the Guantanamo spokesman, disputed that any harsher restrictions had been imposed by the new commander and said the search last month was in keeping with past practice. He said that search, and earlier ones, have turned up  “a Wal-Mart worth of stuff,” including improvised weapons, illegal electronics and other illicit contraband. But he said that handling of the Qurans was tightly regulated  and that no guards are even permitted to touch the Islamic Holy Books during the searches.

Durand also acknowledged that some of the dispute between camp authorities and the detainees’ lawyers may be about defining terms. Guantanamo officials define a hunger strike as refusing to eat nine meals in a row. But, he said, some of the detainees may be hoarding food in their cells even when they claim to be on a hunger strike.  

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