The death this week of a Palestinian prisoner, Khader Adnan, who starved himself in Israel to protest his detention, threw a spotlight on a method of nonviolent resistance, part of a history of protest that turns the captive’s body into a tool to achieve change.
As a tactic of activism, it was used most famously by Mohandas K. Gandhi, who staged several hunger strikes while leading India’s struggle for independence from Britain. Detainees around the world have refused food to call attention to an array of causes, ranging from opposing dictatorships to improving conditions in prisons where they are held.
Here’s a look at hunger strikes in history.
Is it unusual for a prisoner to die during a hunger strike?
Hunger strikes can extend for months, with some prisoners refusing all nourishment except water, while others have allowed themselves small amounts of sugar and salt. In some cases, the authorities have intervened by force-feeding prisoners.
While prisoners can often become gravely ill from lengthy protests, it is not common for hunger strike to result in death. Here are a few:
In 2020, Moustafa Kassem, a dual Egyptian-American citizen from New York, died of starvation after he was imprisoned in Egypt for six years. He was arrested in Cairo in August 2013 during a bloody crackdown following the military takeover that brought to power Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, then an army general and now the president of Egypt.
In Cuba, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, starved himself to death in 2006 to protest prison conditions.
Bobby Sands, a Provisional Irish Republican Army member, was elected to the British Parliament in 1981 while on a hunger strike in a prison in Northern Ireland, and died after not eating for 66 days. Two dozen republican inmates in the same prison took part in hunger strikes that year, including 10 who died.
How is force-feeding hunger strikers viewed?
The authorities are typically eager to quash any potential fallout from prisoners’ dying and loathe the spectacle that hunger strikes can create. They sometimes resort to force-feeding, though for more than a century there has been a vigorous debate about the ethics of the practice.
International groups like the United Nations, the International Red Cross and the World Medical Association have long recognized the right of prisoners to refuse food. Force-feeding hunger strikers, usually done by inserting a tube through the nose or mouth and down to the stomach, has been called “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” by the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and ill treatment. And it has been labeled “a form of torture and is contrary to medical ethics,” according to the World Medical Association.
Despite these objections, the U.S. military has force-fed prisoners on hunger strikes at Guantánamo Bay, saying that it had no other choice but to keep them alive, and none have starved. As many as 200 prisoners there — more than a third of the camp — went on hunger strike in 2005 to protest conditions and their prolonged confinement without trial, and many were force-fed.
In 2015, Israel’s Parliament passed a law allowing the authorities to force-feed prisoners in extreme circumstances — over the protests of the country’s medical association, which has condemned the practice.
In Germany in the 1980s, the government force-fed several imprisoned members of the Red Army Faction, which was responsible for a string of terrorist attacks in the country.
Force-feeding became an international controversy when the British government used the practice, starting in 1909, on imprisoned suffragists who were on hunger strikes. One of them, Mary Jane Clarke, died two days after her release from prison, and her allies blamed her death on her treatment there. The outcry over the force-feeding of suffragists prompted a change in British law in 1913.
Some women campaigning for the vote in the United States were subjected to the same treatment in 1917.
Who stages hunger strikes, and why?
The strikes are nearly always carried out by people, whether imprisoned or free, who say they are fighting against oppression, in an attempt to draw attention to a cause.
Mr. Adnan, the Palestinian prisoner, was protesting Israel’s practice of holding people in administrative detention without filing charges or revealing what evidence there is against them.
In August 2021, the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny ended a three-week hunger strike while serving a prison sentence of more than two years. His goal was to demand that his doctors tend to health problems that might have resulted from his poisoning with a chemical weapon.
Cesar Chavez, the labor leader, went on several extended fasts over his long career, the last time for 36 days in 1988, to protest the treatment of farm workers in the United States.
Irish people who were imprisoned for opposing British rule staged hunger strikes in the years before independence in the early 1920s. Irish republicans revived the practice in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
Mr. Sands, the Provisional Irish Republican Army member, and his fellow inmates were fighting to wrest control of Northern Ireland from Britain, but more immediately, their hunger strike was to demand better treatment in prison and recognition of them as political prisoners, not common criminals.
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