Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay go on hunger strike in protest at conditions

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The Independent US

At least 50 and perhaps hundreds of inmates have begun a hunger strike at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in protest at their unlimited detention and the allegedly degrading conditions in which they are being hel`d.

According to the Pentagon, 52 prisoners began a hunger strike earlier this week. But two Afghan detainees released in recent days have said that more than 180 Afghans were taking part in the protest.

Guantanamo Bay still holds more than 500 people. Many of them have been imprisoned since the facility was opened in early 2002, and most have yet to be formally charged. They are considered "enemy combatants" who are not covered by the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war.

After a host of reports, some detailing sexual humiliation of prisoners by guards and interrogators and desecration of the Koran, human rights groups around the world and some senior Democrats in the US have said that the base has been damaging the American cause in the struggle against Islamic militants, and should be closed. But the Bush administration says that it will continue to use the extra-territorial base, insisting that it has every right to hold inmates until the "war on terror" is won.

Yesterday, lawyers for some prisoners said that the detainees had finalised plans in late June for a hunger strike, to protest at "their indefinite detention and the inhuman conditions at Guantanamo". Citing declassified notes taken by attorneys who visited inmates, the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights said the hunger strike, which calls for "starvation until death", is a "peaceful, non-violent strike until demands are met". Participants also planned to boycott showers and recreational time and some would refuse to wear clothes, it added.

American officials say that detainees who refuse food are given medical treatment including intravenous hydration, water, and nutritional supplements.

The strikers do not include David Hicks, 29, an Australian citizen who has been detained at Guantanamo Bay since January 2002, after his capture among Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

Last week a US court upheld the Pentagon's plans to conduct military trials at the base. Mr Hicks is in the first batch of those due to be tried. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit war crimes and aiding the enemy.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill the White House threatened to veto a $442bn (£254bn) defence spending bill currently before the Senate if it imposed restrictions on the handling of detainees or set up a commission to investigate operations at US military prisons where foreigners are held. Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee are considering various amendments, designed to prevent further abuses after the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad and accounts of degrading interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay. They include defining the legal status of enemy combatants, banning the detention of "ghost" detainees whose names have not been disclosed, and codifying a ban against cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners.

In recent days, eight detainees have been transferred from Guantanamo Bay to other countries, leaving about 510 inmates at the base. The Pentagon said it had recommended that six of the eight be released. One detainee was sent back to Sudan, two to Afghanistan and three to Saudi Arabia. One has been extradited to Spain after a request from the authorities in Madrid.