U.S. military authorities have taken tougher measures to force-feed detainees engaged in hunger strikes at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after concluding that some of them were determined to commit suicide to protest their indefinite confinement, military officials have said.
In recent weeks, the officials said, guards have begun strapping recalcitrant detainees into "restraint chairs," sometimes for hours a day, to feed them through tubes and prevent them from deliberately vomiting afterward.
Detainees who refuse to eat have been placed in isolation to prevent them from being pressured by other hunger strikers, the officials said, and they have been told their protests are futile because their petitions for release have been denied.
The chief military spokesman at Guantanamo, Lt. Col. Jeremy M. Martin, said yesterday that the number of detainees on hunger strike had dropped from 84 at the end of December to four.
Some officials said the new measures reflect concern at Guantanamo and the Pentagon that the protests were becoming difficult to control and that the death of one or more prisoners could intensify international criticism of the center.
Martin said force-feeding was carried out "in a humane and compassionate manner" and only when necessary to keep the prisoners alive.
He said in a statement that "a restraint system to aid detainee feeding" was being used. He refused to answer detailed questions about the restraint chairs.
Lawyers who have visited clients in recent weeks criticized the latest measures, particularly the the restraint chair, as abusive.
"It is clear that the government has ended the hunger strike through the use of force and through the most brutal and inhumane types of treatment," said Thomas B. Wilner, a lawyer at Shearman & Sterling in Washington, who visited the six Kuwaiti detainees he represents last week. "It is a disgrace."
The lawyers said other measures used to dissuade the hunger strikers included placing them in freezing isolation cells, depriving them of "comfort items" such as blankets and books, and sometimes using riot-control soldiers to compel the prisoners to sit still while long plastic tubes were threaded down their nasal passages and into their stomachs.
Officials of the military and the Defense Department strongly disputed that they were taking punitive measures to break the strike.
They said they were sensitive to the ethical issues raised by feeding the detainees involuntarily and said their procedures were consistent with those of federal prisons in the United States. Those prisons authorize the involuntary treatment of hunger strikers when there is a threat to an inmate's life or health.
"There is a moral question," the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., said in an interview. "Do you allow a person to commit suicide? Or do you take steps to protect their health and preserve their life?"
Winkenwerder said that after an extensive review of the policy on involuntary feeding last summer, Pentagon officials came to the conclusion that it was ethical to stop the inmates from killing themselves: "The objective in any circumstance is to protect and sustain a person's life."
Some international medical associations and human rights groups, including the World Medical Association and the International Committee of the Red Cross, oppose the involuntary feeding of hunger strikers as coercive.
Lawyers for the detainees, although troubled by what they said were earlier reports of harsh treatment of the hunger strikers, have generally not opposed actions necessary to save their clients.
The Guantanamo center, with about 500 detainees, has been beset by periodic hunger strikes almost since it was established in January 2002 to hold suspected foreign terrorists. At least one detainee who went on a prolonged hunger strike was involuntarily fed through a nasal tube in 2002, military officials said.