Steve Chapman

The Pentagon has wonderful news for the inmates at Guantanamo who are refusing to eat: It will not infringe on their religious beliefs by force-feeding them during the daylight hours of the upcoming holy month. Their right to decline food will be scrupulously respected until nightfall.

"We understand that observing the daytime fast and taking nothing by mouth or vein is an essential component of Muslim observance of Ramadan," a prison spokesman said. "And for those detainees on hunger strike we will ensure that our preservation of life through enteral feeding does not violate the tenets of their faith."

Come sundown, though, the routine will resume. Let one of the hunger strikers tell us about it: "The process of being force-fed hurts a great deal. ... Sometimes they botch putting the tube in, and tears stream down my cheek. ... They shackle our feet with metal chains and shackle our arms and hands. ... Then they put us in a force-feeding chair and tie us with belts. ...

"I have thrown up myself sometimes because of the feeding. Especially at bedtime, I feel ill and start to throw up. I try to do it when they will not notice -- because if they see me, they will put me in the chair and feed me again."

No need for sympathy, though, because they've brought it on themselves, right? They're the ones who refuse to take the life-sustaining nourishment provided by the U.S. government in its boundless concern for their well-being. All they have to do to avoid having a tube shoved up their nose and down their throat is to eat. What could be easier?

But maybe it's not so easy. To want to eat, it helps to have a reason to go on living. Because of circumstances beyond their control, many of the Guantanamo hunger strikers have none.

The inmate quoted above, Ahmed Belbacha, has been in the prison since March 2002. In 2007, a U.S. military review board cleared him for release. In 2009, he was cleared once again. But he doesn't want to be sent back to his native country, Algeria, where he was sentenced to 20 years in prison after a trial that his lawyers say was a fraud. There, he fears, he would be tortured or killed.

The Obama administration has been unable or unwilling to find another place for him. Congress has forbidden the transfer of any inmate, no matter how harmless, to U.S. soil. So he languishes behind bars, without guilt and without hope.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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