Two Afghans released on Wednesday from detention in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba claimed that about 180 other Afghans held at the US detention facility were on a hunger strike to protest alleged mistreatment and to push for their release.
A US military spokesman at Guantanamo did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment.
The two-- identified as Habir Russol and Moheb Ullah Borekzai-- said they were taken from Guantanamo on Monday and flown back to Afghanistan before being released. By Wednesday, the prisoners would be on their 14th or 15th day of their fast, they said.
"Right now, 180 Afghan prisoners are not eating or drinking,'' Russol told reporters in Afghanistan after being released. "Some of the prisoners are sick and there is no medical treatment for them.''
Borekzai later explained to The Associated Press why the prisoners were protesting: "Some of these people say they were mistreated during interrogation. Some say they are innocent,'' he said. "They are protesting that they have been in jail nearly four years and they want to be released.
Neil Koslowe, a Washington, DC-based lawyer for 12 detainees from Kuwait, said several inmates had told him during a visit to Guantanamo from June 20-24 that there was a 'widespread' hunger strike over the amount and quality of water they received.
Koslowe said he was told that the tap water in the camp was discoloured, foul smelling and caused gastrointestinal ailments among inmates. Detainees receive three small bottles of purified water, emblazoned with American flags, each month but that was inadequate in Cuba's tropical climate, the lawyer said.
He said bottled water had also been taken away from detainees who break detention centre rules.
"Nothing was done despite complaints from a broad cross-section of detainees," Koslowe said on Wednesday.
The hunger strike had spread to inmates throughout the detention facility, including in the highest security areas. News of the action spread by word-of-mouth over what the guards refer to as the "DIS," or detainee information system, Koslowe said.
The two prisoners released on Wednesday said they had been accused of being members of the Taliban, but both claimed to be innocent.
Russol, from eastern Khost province, near the border with Pakistan, declined to say when he had been captured.
Borekzai, originally from the southern city of Kandahar, said he had forgotten when he was caught.
Both were dressed in baggy blue denim jeans, large white T-shirts and white canvas sneakers-- apparently provided by the US military. One wore a white Muslim prayer cap and both had long beards.
The US military in Kabul declined to comment on their release.
Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, head of Afghanistan's peace and reconciliation commission, who presided over the two men being released, told them that they should be happy to be free and should not "talk about the past."
The US Defense Department announced earlier this month that it would release four prisoners from Guantanamo who no longer pose much of a threat, but gave no details about their identities. It said the four would be sent to their home countries.
About 520 prisoners remain at Guantanamo. Most are Afghans, Pakistanis and other nationalities captured after the US invasion of Afghanistan late in 2001. They were labeled "enemy combatants," which the Bush administration decided did not afford them status as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. Only a few have been charged with any crime.
Borekzai also accused US military officials at Guantanamo of abusing the Quran, including prison guards "throwing away" the Islamic holy book. He did not elaborate. He said that about a month ago, the attitude of military officials improved regarding inmates using the Quran and praying.
In May, a US magazine reported that interrogators at Guantanamo placed copies of the Quran in washrooms and flushed one book in the toilet to get inmates to talk. Newsweek magazine later withdrew its story and apologised, but the report sparked anti-US riots across Afghanistan, killing 15 people.
Associated Press correspondent Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico contributed to this report.