The military commander responsible for the American detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, confirmed Tuesday that officials there last month turned to more aggressive methods to deter prisoners who were carrying out long-term hunger strikes to protest their incarceration.
The commander, Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, said soldiers at Guantanamo began strapping some of the detainees into "restraint chairs" to force-feed them and isolate them from one another after finding that some were deliberately vomiting or siphoning out the liquid they had been fed.
"It was causing problems because some of these hard-core guys were getting worse," Craddock said. Explaining the use of the restraint chairs, he added, "The way around that is you have to make sure that purging doesn't happen."
After the New York Times reported Feb. 9 that the military had begun using restraint chairs and other harsh methods, military spokesmen insisted that the procedures for dealing with the hunger strikes at Guantanamo had not changed. They also said they could not confirm that the chairs had been used.
On Tuesday, Craddock said he had reviewed the use of the restraint chairs, as had senior officials at the Department of Defense, and they concluded that the practice was "not inhumane." Craddock left no doubt, however, that commanders had decided to try to make life less comfortable for the hunger strikers, and that the measures were seen as successful.
"Pretty soon it wasn't convenient, and they decided it wasn't worth it," he said of the hunger strikers. "A lot of the detainees said, "I don't want to put up with this. This is too much of a hassle.' "
A spokesman for the Southern Command, Lt. Col. James Marshall, said that restraint chairs had been used in the feeding of 35 of the detainees so far, and that three were still being fed that way. He said the number of prisoners refusing to eat had fallen from 41 on Dec. 15 - when the restraint chairs were first used on a trial basis - to five, according to a military spokesman.
Lawyers for the detainees and several human rights groups have assailed the new methods used against the hunger strikers as inhumane and as unjustified by the reported medical condition of the prisoners.
According to newly declassified interview notes, several detainees who had been on hunger strikes told their lawyers during visits late last month that the military had begun using harsher methods more widely in the second week of January. One Yemeni detainee, Emad Hassan, described the chair to lawyers in interviews on Jan. 24 and 25.
"The head is immobilized by a strap so it can't be moved, their hands are cuffed to the chair and the legs are shackled," the notes quote Hassan as saying. "They ask, "Are you going to eat or not?' and if not, they insert the tube. People have been urinating and defecating on themselves in these feedings and vomiting and bleeding. They ask to be allowed to go to the bathroom, but they will not let them go. They have sometimes put diapers on them."
Another former hunger striker, Isa al-Murbati of Bahrain, described a similar experience to his lawyer, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, in an interview on Jan. 28.
Like Hassan, Murbati said he had been fed two large bags of liquid formula, which were forced into his stomach very quickly. "He felt pain like a "knife in the stomach,' " Colangelo-Bryan noted.
Detainees said the Guantanamo medical staff also began inserting and removing the long plastic feeding tubes that were threaded through the detainees' nasal passages and into their stomachs at every feeding, a practice that caused sharp pain and frequent bleeding, they said. Until then, doctors there said, they had been allowing the hunger strikers to leave their feeding tubes in, to reduce discomfort.
Military spokesmen have generally discounted the complaints, saying the prisoners are for the most part terrorists, trained by al-Qaida to use false stories as propaganda.