WASHINGTON: Guantanamo Bay guards have not desecrated or mishandled the Quran in any way, despite allegations by inmates on hunger strike there, a top US general said on Wednesday.
At least 24 detainees at the controversial US-run prison have launched a hunger strike and their defense lawyers say their clients have stopped taking meals to protest the alleged mishandling of the Quran during cell searches.
“It's nonsense,” US Southern Command chief General John Kelly told reporters when asked about the charges.
“There's absolutely no mishandling of the Quran.” When a Quran is picked up, a Muslim translator handles Islam's holy book, he said.
“No way has a Quran in any shape or form been in any way abused or mistreated,” said Kelly, who oversees the prison as it falls under his command.
Officials have acknowledged that 24 inmates are now on hunger strike, double the number since last week.
But Kelly said some of those prisoners were “eating a bit but not a lot.” US officials define a hunger strike as missing nine meals in a row. Some inmates do not take meals and are fed through a tube instead.
The general said there was no force used on the striking inmates, although defense lawyers and rights groups portray the practice as “force feeding.” The detainees have stopped taking meals because they are disappointed that President Barack Obama has not fulfilled his pledge to close the prison at the US naval base in southern Cuba.
“And what we've learned is that the detainees... and their attorneys presumably, had great hope that the facility would be closed,” Kelly said.
With no sign that the detention center is about to shut and no mention of the issue in Obama's inauguration speech in January, the inmates “have decided, obviously, that they need to be heard perhaps more than they have been,” the general added.
The hunger strike follows an incident at the camp in January that led to a rubber bullet being fired in Guantanamo for the first time since 2006. The only person hit by the bullet escaped injury.
The prison was opened in 2002 to house suspected militants rounded up in the “war on terror” waged by then-president George W. Bush following the September 11 attacks.
Obama vowed to close the prison for good after entering office in 2009 but Congress has blocked his efforts and it remains open, housing 166 detainees.
Most of the inmates have not been charged and remain behind bars with no end in sight.