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The Administration has a keen interest in keeping detainees alive, even against their will. Force feeding has long been standard policy for hunger strikes at Gitmo, which first began in 2002. The facility's top physicians have told TIME that prisoners who resist are subjected to what critics call especially forceful methods. According to medical records obtained by TIME, a 20-year-old named Yusuf al-Shehri, jailed since he was 16, was regularly strapped into a specially designed feeding chair that immobilizes the body at the legs, arms, shoulders and head. Then a plastic tube, sometimes as much as 50% bigger than the type commonly used for feeding incapacitated patients, was inserted through his nose and down his throat--a procedure that can trigger nausea, bleeding and diarrhea.
Allegations of prisoner abuse prompted more than 250 medical professionals, none of whom work at Gitmo, to sign an open letter to the British medical journal the Lancet demanding an end to force feeding. They cited the code of ethics of the American Medical Association and the World Medical Association, both of which condemn the force feeding of prisoners as a violation of human dignity. In response, the U.S. could say that keeping prisoners alive is its responsibility, even if drastic measures are required to do so.
It was equally in the prisoners' interests for one of their number to die. In a global jihad in which suicide bombers are cheered as heroes, suicide at Guantanamo could be seen as an act of passive resistance, like the self-immolations of Buddhist monks in the early days of the Vietnam War. The Gitmo deaths may have had religious significance for the men who committed them. Colonel Mike Bumgarner, who oversees the detention camps, said in May that several inmates told him of a "vision, or a dream--implicitly a message from God--that if three detainees die, it will attract enough attention so that they will all get out of Guantanamo."
A former Bush Administration official who has been involved in Guantanamo issues believes the suicides could put a crimp in the international praise Bush has received for his tentative détente with Iran: "It reinforces the perception that he can't play nicely with the world and will stir up the monitoring organizations, which hurts the President abroad." The detainees' deaths are unlikely to become a domestic political liability, the source says, because the American voter assumes "that if they're in Gitmo, they're pretty bad." But the former official adds, "People don't react very well to surprises like this, because it reinforces the notion that a chaotic world has been made more chaotic by the Bush presidency, not less. People say, 'Typical Bush. He creates problems he can't solve.'"
The President says he wants to "empty" the Gitmo facility but can't do so until another country agrees to take the inmates without torturing or freeing them. Yet authorities are currently constructing a new, $30 million prison at Gitmo, where they plan to consolidate many of the camp's maximum- and medium-security inmates. Harris argues the camp will be needed for the foreseeable future.