By Jane Sutton and Matt Spetalnick
MIAMI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A violent weekend clash between guards and prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and the release of harrowing accounts by inmates of force-feeding of hunger strikers threw a harsh spotlight on President Barack Obama's failure to close the camp.
Sharpening the focus further on the plight of inmates, the majority of an independent task force will recommend on Tuesday that Obama shut the prison by the end of 2014 and either try the remaining 166 prisoners, repatriate them to home countries or transfer them to U.S. jails, a commission member told Reuters.
David Gushee, an ethics expert on the panel created by The Constitution Project think tank in Washington, said the task force would unanimously condemn force-feeding as prisoner abuse.
Many terrorism suspects captured abroad after the September 11, 2001, attacks have been held in legal limbo - without charge or trial - for over a decade and some despair of ever leaving.
"Instead of a swift execution, we are being subjected to a cruel, slow and cold-blooded death," Musa'ab al Madhwani, a Yemeni hunger striker wrote in a recent court affidavit dictated to his defence lawyer.
"Gitmo is killing me" was the headline of a New York Times op-ed on Monday written by another Yemeni man, who described in dramatic detail being strapped down and force-fed intravenously.
The hunger strike to protest against indefinite detentions at Guantanamo escalated into violence between guards and prisoners during a weekend raid aimed at halting it.
Guards swept through communal cells and forcibly moved prisoners into individual cells, firing off four rounds of small, rubber pellets against those who resisted or fought back with makeshift weapons.
The White House defended the raid, which highlighted weeks of mounting tensions with prisoners at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba. But it pointed the finger at Congress for blocking Obama's efforts to close down the prison, which has become an enduring symbol of widely criticized Bush-era counterterrorism practices.
"We've been monitoring of course the situation at Guantanamo closely," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters when asked about the weekend raid. He said the prisoners were moved to "ensure their health and security."
Carney said Obama, who originally promised to close the prison within a year of taking office in 2009, remained committed to shutting it. But the president has offered no new path to doing so in his second term. "Obstacles have been raised by Congress and that remains a reality," Carney said.
Obama has approved military tribunals to try some of the most dangerous suspects. But only nine of the current prisoners have been charged or convicted of crimes.
U.S. lawmakers have blocked Obama from bringing Guantanamo prisoners to American jails, saying they would pose a security risk, and made it difficult to repatriate others.
The U.S. government will not send some back to their homelands because of instability or concerns over mistreatment, and most countries are reluctant to accept them for resettlement when the United States itself will not take any.
Some legal experts say Obama could take action to close Guantanamo using his executive powers. If he were to do so, he would face opposition from both sides of the political aisle.
The situation at Guantanamo, which was opened by Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, to hold foreign terrorism suspects after the September 11, 2001, attacks, will again be cast in a critical spotlight on Tuesday with the release of the task force's report in Washington.
But the panel - co-chaired by former Republican undersecretary of homeland security Asa Hutchinson and former Democratic congressman James Jones - will also underscore divisions among Americans on what to do about Guantanamo.
Gushee, a professor at Mercer University in Atlanta, said most of the panel's 11 members opposed indefinite detention at Guantanamo and would recommend the closing of the camp by the end of 2014.
They will propose a combination of civilian and military trials to deal with as many of the inmates as possible. Those who cannot be tried or transferred to their homelands would be moved to jails on the U.S. mainland, he said.
These goals would be hard to achieve because of legal and political hurdles, and Gushee said some of task force members will even call for maintaining the status quo at Guantanamo.
Obama's original promise to shutter Guantanamo was part of an effort to turn the page on the Bush era, when the invasion of Iraq and the harsh treatment of mostly Muslim terrorism suspects damaged America's image in the Islamic world.
The prisoners' accounts of their treatment and those of their captors have always been at odds. Prisoners and their lawyers say more than 100 men are taking part in the hunger strike, which began two months ago.
But the military counts only 43 prisoners as being on a hunger strike. It says about a dozen have lost enough weight that they are being force-fed via tubes inserted in their noses and down into their stomachs - a method that human rights advocates strongly oppose as a violation of personal dignity.
But U.S. military officials have said repeatedly that they have a duty to safeguard prisoners in their custody and that "No detainee will be allowed to harm himself or to endanger his health."
The military doctors say the process is done gently, that the feeding tubes are lubricated before insertion - one said he used olive oil - and that the prisoners can choose which flavour of Ensure liquid meals they want.
The military has acknowledged that prisoners are sometimes strapped into restraint chairs, with their head and limbs immobilized to keep them from removing the tubes.
"It's a problem in terms of medical ethics," Gushee said. "It's very invasive."
Yemeni hunger striker Samir Najal al Hasan Moqbel gave a harrowing account of his force-feeding in the New York Times.
Moqbel said he had lost about 30 pounds (14 kg) since joining the hunger strike on February 10. He said that in March, the Extreme Reaction Force, Guantanamo's version of a SWAT team in riot gear, burst into his cell, took him to the camp hospital and tied his hands and feet to the bed.
"They forcibly inserted an IV into my hand. I spent 26 hours in this state, tied to the bed. During this time I was not permitted to go to the toilet. They inserted a catheter, which was painful, degrading and unnecessary. I was not even permitted to pray."
Madhwani said he had lost so much weight since joining the hunger strike that he had to use a rubber band to keep his pants from falling down. He said guards had tried to break the hunger strike by denying prisoners access to drinkable water, and by cranking up the air conditioning so high they shivered.
Navy Captain Robert Durand, a spokesman for the detention camp, called those allegations "absolutely false."
Moqbel and Madhwani have both been held at Guantanamo for more than 11 years but said they had no affiliation with al Qaeda and had done nothing wrong. They were sent to Guantanamo from Afghanistan and surrounding nations where they were swept up in counterterrorism operations.
Moqbel said the U.S. military had initially accused him of being a guard for Osama bin Laden but that, "They don't even seem to believe it anymore. But they don't seem to care how long I sit here, either."
Eighty-six prisoners have been cleared for release but are among the 166 men still held at Guantanamo. Most are Yemenis and the United States halted repatriations to that country in 2009 after a Yemeni-trained al Qaeda operative tried to set off a bomb concealed in his underwear aboard a U.S.-bound plane.
(Reporting by Jane Sutton and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Beech)