Lawyers lobby Hagel over Guantanamo hunger strike

Lawyers representing Guantanamo prisoners wrote an open letter to US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday to highlight the "mass hunger strike" at the facility.

Forty-five lawyers wrote to Hagel to warn of the "serious threat to the health and life of detainees" who are on hunger strike at the widely reviled jail set up in Cuba after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The letter said Guantanamo's commander had failed to respond to a request for information about the hunger strike sent on March 4.

The lawyers noted that as a Republican senator, Hagel had in 2005 warned that Guantanamo's existence meant the United States was "losing the image war around the world."

The lawyers said the majority of detainees in Guantanamo's Camp 6 division, some 166 prisoners, had been on hunger strike since February 6, a fact corroborated by attorneys who had visited the camp.

US authorities at the prison have challenged the scale of the allegations stated by lawyers, insisting on Monday that only nine detainees were on hunger strike, of whom only five are being force-fed using tubes.

"We have also received alarming reports of detainees' deteriorating health, including that men have lost over 20 and 30 pounds (nine and 13 kilos), and that at least two dozen men have lost consciousness due to low blood glucose levels, which have dropped to life-threatening levels," the letter to Hagel said.

Lawyers for the prisoners say the hunger strike was triggered by widespread searches of detainees' Korans that had been "perceived as desecration."

Joint Task Force Guantanamo's public affairs chief Robert Durand denied that any Korans had been mistreated.

"To be clear: there have been no incidents of desecration of the Koran by guards or translators, and nothing unusual happened during a routine search for contraband," he told AFP this week.

"No JTF-Guantanamo guard touches any detainee's Koran at any time. The Koran is treated with the utmost respect."