By AHMED AL-HAJ
Yemeni women hold photos of their relatives detained in Guantanamo Bay prison during a demonstration in front of the U.S. embassy demanding their release, in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, April 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Activists and relatives of around 90 Yemeni detainees held in Guantanamo Bay protested outside the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa on Monday to demand the prisoners’ release after more than a decade in detention.
Yemenis make up the largest contingent of the 166 detainees held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. Most were detained in Afghanistan following the 2001 U.S. invasion.
Rights activist and protester Abdel-Rahman Barman said conditions at the prison are “very poor” and that at least two of the men there are on hunger strike.
They are among some 33 prisoners whom the U.S. military says went on hunger strike, including three who were hospitalized for dehydration.
The prisoners say that they have been denied water and that the air conditioning was being kept frigid to punish them during a hunger strike. The military disputes the claims and says prisoners are also offered bottled water.
The largest of Guantanamo’s hunger strikes began in the summer of 2005 and reached a peak of around 131 prisoners, when the facility held about 500 detainees. The U.S. military broke the protest by strapping detainees down and force-feeding them a liquid nutrient mix to prevent them from starving themselves to death.
An embassy employee was seen accepting a letter from relatives of the detainees who protested on Monday. The embassy could not immediately be reached for comment.
The latest hunger strike began on Feb. 6. It was prompted by what the prisoners considered more intrusive searches of their cells and of the Qurans that each man is issued by the government, as well as the more general complaint of their open-ended confinement without charge.
Seven apparent suicides have taken place at the prison. The latest was a 32 -year-old Yemeni in September who had been held there for around 10 years. Two others were determined to have died from natural causes.
Yemen’s government has requested its nationals in Guantanamo Bay prison be sent to Sanaa, and has suggested rehabilitating the detainees if they disavow militancy — a policy used with dozens of Saudis who were repatriated to their country.
Washington argues that Yemen, where al-Qaida is active, is too unstable to prevent former prisoners from engaging in militant activities.
President Barack Obama had pledged to shutter the prison at Guantanamo soon after taking office but Congress opposed it, passing a law that prohibits the government from transferring Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. soil and requiring security guarantees before they can be sent elsewhere in the world.