The general overseeing the Guantánamo military prison is reportedly downplaying the scope and significance of an ongoing hunger strike undertaken by detainees at the infamous detention center in an effort to highlight the “desperation and hopelessness of indefinite detention” and draw attention to the “normalization of Guantánamo.”

Despite the fact that a number of the detainees have not eaten since February, “threatening the lives of many,” General John Kelly testified before the House Armed Services committee on Wednesday that some prisoners “were eating a bit, but not a lot,” and that it was “difficult to confirm how many of the inmates were on hunger strike, because the prisoners eat communally.”

 Kelly also refuted claims made by prisoners’ attorneys that prison officials were mishandling the Koran, an abuse that was partly responsible for sparking the strike.

According to the BBC, Kelly called the accusations “nonsense” and put the hunger strike down to “frustration.”

Omar Farah, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) representing a number of the detainees, said in an email that the strike is about these violations as well as the “normalization of Guantanamo,” which he explains as the lack of plan or political will on the part of the President “to live up to his promise to close the prison.”

Since its onset, there have been conflicting reports on the number of detainees participating in the hunger strike. Farah said that according to his clients, as of March 14, nearly 130 prisoners in Camp 6 and roughly 20 in Camp 5 were participating in the strike.

However, the prison reports that the number of striking inmates has risen from 14 to “over 20.”

Regarding the disparity, Farah writes:

The prisoners’ themselves […] have been consistent since Feb 6, when the strike began, that the protest is wide-spread and their health has steadily deteriorated. The government’s position is telling; at first no one was striking, then a few, then fourteen, and now 24. I read this as a slow concession that indeed there is a mass protest occurring at Guantanamo as our clients have been informing us.

The condition of the all the prisoners detained, including those not on hunger strike, appears to have grown critical, though reports from the prison similarly vary.

Guantánamo spokesman Captain Robert Durand said that eight of the protesting prisoners lost enough weight that doctors were force-feeding them liquid nutrients while two were hospitalized with dehydration.

Ahead of the testimony, attorneys from CCR issued a letter to committee members highlighting the “increasingly desperate situation” at Guantánamo.

“We have received reports that some prisoners have lost between 20 to 40 pounds, and over two dozen men have lost consciousness due to dangerously low blood glucose levels,” they write.

Regarding the larger prison population, they add:

As the Committee is well aware, the 166 men still imprisoned at Guantánamo have now been detained for over 11 years without charge or trial. Although 86 have long been cleared for transfer by the Obama Administration, they continue to languish at the prison with no hope of ever being released. The situation is now critical. Men who arrived at Guantánamo in their 40s are now in their 50s and 60s and are suffering complications related to advanced age. Others suffer from acute depression, anxiety, and stress – chronic mental health issues that are exacerbated by the indefinite nature of their detention. Nine men have died since the prison opened in 2002.

The letter also urged committee members to question Kelly “on how he is working to fulfill the Adminstration’s long-standing promise to close the detention center,” adding in a CCR press release:

Congress and the Obama administration can no longer ignore the rising crisis at Guantánamo […], the House Armed Services Committee must question General Kelly closely on how he is working to end the hunger strike and working with the administration to facilitate Guantánamo’s swift closure pursuant to the President’s 2009 Executive Order, before another tragedy occurs at the base.

Lauren McCauley is a staff writer with Common Dreams. 

This article was originally published at Common Dreams and is reprinted here with permission.