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A hunger strike is a method of non-violent resistance or pressure in which participants fast as an act of political protest, or to provoke feelings of guilt in others, usually with the objective to achieve a specific goal, such as a policy change. Most hunger strikers will take liquids but not solid food. A hunger strike cannot be effective if the fact that it is being undertaken is not publicized so as to be known by the people who are to be impressed, concerned or embarrassed by it. Hunger strikes have sometimes been forcibly ended through the use of force-feeding.

Early history

Fasting was used as a method of protesting injustice in pre-Christian Irelandmarker, where it was known as Troscadh or Cealachan. It was detailed in the contemporary civic codes, and had specific rules by which it could be used. The fast was often carried out on the doorstep of the home of the offender. Scholars speculate this was due to the high importance the culture placed on hospitality. Allowing a person to die at one's doorstep, for a wrong of which one was accused, was considered a great dishonor. Others say that the practice was to fast for one whole night, as there is no evidence of people fasting to death in pre-Christian Ireland. The fasts were primarily undertaken to recover debts or get justice for a perceived wrong. There are legends of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, using the hunger strike as well.

In Indiamarker, the practice of a hunger protest, where the protestor fasts at the door of an offending party (typically a debtor) in a public call for justice, was abolished by the government in 1861; this indicates the prevalence of the practice prior to that date, or at least a public awareness of it. This Indian practice is ancient, going back to around 400 to 750 BC. This can be known since it appears in the Valmiki Ramayana, which was composed around that time. The actual mention appears in the Ayodhya Kanda, (the second book of the Ramayana), in Sarga (section) 103. Bharata has gone to ask the exiled Rama to come back and rule the kingdom. Bharata tries many arguments, none of which work, at which point he decides to do a hunger strike. He announces his intention to fast, calls for his charioteer Sumantra to bring him some sacred Kusha grass, (but Sumantra won't do it since he's too busy looking at Rama's face, so Bharata has to get the grass himself), lies down upon it in front of Rama. Rama, however, is quickly able to persuade him to abandon the attempt. Rama mentions it as a practice of the brahmanas.

Medical view

In the first 3 days, the body is still using energy from glucose. After that, the liver starts processing body fat, in a process called ketosis. After 3 weeks the body enters in "starvation mode". At this point the body "mines" the muscles and vital organs for energy, and loss of bone marrow becomes life-threatening. There are examples of hunger strikers dying after 52 to 74 days of strike.

Recent instances

Thileepan - Fast to Death

"I am confident that our people will, one day, achieve their freedom.
It gives me great satisfaction and contentment that I am fulfilling a national responsibility to the nation."

On the 15th of August 1987 at 9.30 a.m at the Nallur Murugan Templemarker, Thileepan began his fast. His main objective was to bring awareness and action to a list of public demands made by himself and the Tamil Tigers, considered to be a terrorist group.

The publicly stated goals of his fast were:

  • All Tamils detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act should be released.
  • The colonisation of Sinhalese in Tamil areas under the guise of rehabilitation should be stopped.
  • All such rehabilitation should be stopped until an interim government is formed.
  • The Sri Lankan government should stop opening new Police stations and camps in the Northeasternmarker province.
  • The Sri Lankan Army and Police should withdraw from schools in Tamil villages and the weapons given by the Sri Lankan government to 'homeguards' should be withdrawn under the supervision of the Indian army. Just prior to his fast the relationship between the LTTE and the IPKF administration was its lowest point.

Although several groups requested Thileepan as well as the local IPKF administration to intervene and stop the fast, Thileepan died on the 26th of September 1987. There was widespread grief in Tamil areas. Thousands of people from the North and East flooded Jaffnamarker as news of his death spread . His death created an anti-Indian mood in Jaffna, which had been pro-India till then.

Tibetan freedom fighters

Tibetans who had tried to cross into Tibet, but were stopped in their quest have started a hunger strike unto death in Kathmandu, Nepal.

A unique hunger strike without food and water started on July 28, 2008, led by Tibetan Youth Congress started in Indian Capital, New Delhimarker in protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The 6 monks on hunger strike were in a critical situation and therefore the Indian police forcefully hospitalized them.


Mohandas Gandhi was imprisoned in 1922, 1930, 1933 and 1942. Because of Gandhi's stature around the world, Britishmarker authorities were loath to allow him to die in their custody. It is likely Britain's reputation would have suffered as a result of such an event. Gandhi engaged in several famous hunger strikes to protest British rule of India. Fasting was a non-violent way of communicating the message and sometimes dramatically achieve the reason for the protest. This was keeping with the rules of Satyagraha.

In addition to Gandhi, various others have used the hunger strike option during the Indian independence movement. Such figures include Bhagat Singh.

British and American suffragettes

Clipping from World Magazine, September 6, 1914.
In the early 20th century suffragettes frequently endured hunger strikes in British prisons. Marion Dunlop was the first in 1909. She was released, as the authorities did not want her to become a martyr. Other suffragettes in prison also undertook hunger strikes. The prison authorities subjected them to force-feeding, which the suffragettes categorized as a form of torture. Mary Clarke,Jean Hewart, Katherine Fry and several others died as a result of force-feeding.

In 1913 the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act (nicknamed the "Cat and Mouse Act") changed policy. Hunger strikes were tolerated but prisoners were released when they became sick. When they had recovered, the suffragettes were taken back to prison to finish their sentences.

Like their British counterparts, American suffragettes also used this method of political protest. A few years prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a group of American suffragettes led by Alice Paul engaged in a hunger strike and endured forced feedings while incarcerated at the Occoquan Workhousemarker in Virginia.

Irish republicans

"This Mural Is Dedicated To The H Block & Armagh Prison Struggle And In Memory Of Bobby Sands, Kevin Lynch, Frank Hughes, Kieran Doherty, Raymond McCreesh, Tom McElwee, Patsy O'Hara, Michael Devine, Martin Hurson, Joe McDonnell."
Hunger strikes have deep roots in Irish society and in the Irish psyche. Fasting in order to bring attention to an injustice which one felt under his lord, and thus embarrass him into a solution, was a common feature of society in Early Irish society and this tactic was fully incorporated into the Brehon legal system. The tradition is ultimately most likely part of the still older Indo-European tradition of which the Irish were part.

The tactic was used by Irish republicans from 1917 and, subsequently, during the Anglo-Irish War, in the 1920s. Early use of hunger strikes by republicans had been countered by the British with force-feeding, which culminated in 1917 in the death of Thomas Ashe in Mountjoy Prisonmarker.

In October 1920, the Lord Mayor of Corkmarker, Terence MacSwiney, died on hunger strike in Brixtonmarker prison. Two other Cork IRA men, Joe Murphy and Michael Fitzgerald, also died on hunger strike in this protest along with Monaghan native, Conor McElvaney who lasted 79 days before death. The Guinness Book of Records lists the world record in hunger strike (without forced feeding) as 94 days, which was set from August 11 to November 12, 1920 by John and Peter Crowley, Thomas Donovan, Michael Burke, Michael O'Reilly, Christopher Upton, John Power, Joseph Kenny and Seán Hennessy at the prison of Cork. Arthur Griffith called off the strikes after the deaths of MacSwiney, Murphy and Fitzgerald.

After the end of the Irish Civil War in October 1923, up to 8000 IRA prisoners went on hunger strike to protest their continued detention by the Irish Free State (a total of over 12,000 republicans had been interned by May 1923). Two men, Denny Barry and Andrew O'Sullivan, died on the strike. The strike, however, was called off before any more deaths occurred. The Free State subsequently released the women republican prisoners. Most of the male Republicans were not released until the following year.

Under the de Valera Fianna Fáil government three hunger strikers died in the Republic of Ireland in the 1940s. They were Sean McCaughey, Tony d'Arcy and Sean McNeela. Hundreds of others carried out shorter hunger strikes during the deValera years with no sympathy from the Government.

The tactic was revived by the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s, when several republicans such as Sean MacStiofain successfully used hunger strikes to get themselves released from custody without charge in the Republic of Irelandmarker. Michael Gaughan died after being force-fed in a British prison in 1974. Frank Stagg, an IRA member being held in a British jail, died after a 62-day hunger strike in 1976 which he began as a campaign to be repatriated to Ireland.

Irish hunger strike of 1981

In 1980, seven Republican prisoners in the Maze Prisonmarker launched a hunger strike as a protest against the revocation by the British government of a prisoner-of-war-like Special Category Status for paramilitary prisoners in Northern Irelandmarker. The strike, led by Brendan Hughes, was called off before any deaths, when Britain seemed to offer to concede their demands; however, the British then reneged on the details of the agreement. The prisoners then called another hunger strike the following year. This time, instead of many prisoners striking at the same time, the hunger strikers started fasting one after the other in order to maximise publicity over the fate of each one.

Bobby Sands was the first of ten Irish republican paramilitary prisoners to die during a hunger strike in 1981. There was widespread support for the hunger strikers from Irish republicans and the broader nationalist community on both sides of the Irishmarker border. Some of the hunger strikers were elected to both the Irish and Britishmarker parliaments by an electorate who wished to register their support for the hunger strikers. The ten men survived without food for 46 to 73 days, taking only water and salt. After the deaths of the men and severe public disorder, the British government granted partial concessions to the prisoners, and the strike was called off. The hunger strikes gave a huge propaganda boost to a severely demoralised Provisional IRA.

A press release on 25 March 2008 from Republican Sinn Féin announced that Republican prisoners in Maghaberry Gaol commenced a 48 hour hunger strike from Easter Sunday. The press release claims this action is in response to prisoners being put into solitary confinement after being found to be wearing Easter Lilies. Lilies are worn all through Ireland during Easter to remember all that have died for Irish freedom. The press release states that Loyalist prisoners and prison guards are allowed to wear poppies during Remembrance Day where the poppy is a symbol to honour those who have died for Britain in times of war, particularly World War I and that this is tolerated and not punished in a similar way to the alleged treatment of Republicans who wore Lilies.[31483]

Cuban dissidents

On April 3, 1972, Pedro Luis Boitel, an imprisoned poet and dissident, declared himself on hunger strike. After 53 days on hunger strike without receiving medical assistance and receiving only liquids, he died of starvation on May 25, 1972. His last days were related by his close friend, poet Armando Valladares. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Cólon Cemeterymarker in Havanamarker.

Guillermo Fariñas did a seven-month hunger strike to protest against the extensive Internet censorship in Cuba. He ended it in Autumn 2006, with severe health problems although still conscious. Reporters Without Borders awarded its cyber-freedom prize to Guillermo Fariñas in 2006.

Jorge Luis García Pérez (known as Antúnez) has done hunger strikes. In 2009, following the end of his 17-year imprisonment, Antúnez, his wife Iris, and Diosiris Santana Pérez started a hunger strike to support other political prisoners. Leaders from Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Argentina declared their support for Antúnez.

Political prisoners in Turkey

Inspired by the Irish Republicans, Turkish political prisoners developed a tradition of hunger strikes, which continues to this day. After the suppression of rising civil socialist movements by a military coup in 1980, many militants as well as civil activists were imprisoned under highly inhumane conditions. In response to torture and mistreatment of political prisoners, the first hunger strike was launched in 1984, taking the lives of 4 Dev-Sol militants, Abdullah Meral, Haydar Başbağ, Fatih Öktülmüş and Hasan Telci.

In the following years, socialist movements have been increasingly marginalized and moved underground. However, many militant Marxist/Leninist groups have survived. For this reason, the number of political prisoners has always been high. In 1996, when the nationalist minister of the Islamist/conservative government launched a policy on segregation of political prisoners from each other, another hunger strike broke down, with the participation of several leftist militant groups. The strike lasted 69 days, took 12 lives, and the indifferent attitude of the government provoked a strong public protest. As a result, with the initiative of intellectuals including Yaşar Kemal, Zülfü Livaneli, and Orhan Pamuk, a deal was achieved between the government and prisoners. The prisoners took most of their rights back, which they recall as a victory.

The last wave of hunger strikes in Turkey, which has become chronic in recent years, was started against F-type prisons, which were designed for efficient segregation of political prisoners. The project was developed starting in 1997, and the strike was started on October 20, 2000, demanding F-type prisons not to be opened, by a large coalition of militant groups, this time including the Kurdish-separatist militants of PKK. The result was tragic. On December 19, 2000, the now democratic left-extreme nationalist coalition decided to break the strike using force, which was named "Back to life" operation. The operation was faced by a well-organized resistance of prisoners, resulting in the death of 28 prisoners and 2 soldiers. Since then, both F-type prisons and related hunger strikes have become an issue of daily life. According to the organization of prisoner relatives, 101 prisoners have died and above 400 have suffered from unrecoverable disease, particularly Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. The governments have consistently denied claims about mistreatment of prisoners, and president Ahmet Necdet Sezer has been pardoning diseased prisoners, only to be criticized by the extreme right, since many of the released militants have been seen in different demonstrations against F-type prisons. The government maintains that 189 hunger strikers received presidential pardons since 2000.

Animal rights

British animal-rights activist Barry Horne died on November 5, 2001 after a series of four hunger strikes, the longest of which lasted 68 days from October 6 to December 13, 1998, leaving him partially blind and with kidney damage.

Fathers' rights

American fathers' rights activist John Murtari engaged in an action throughout his jail sentence, which he described as "not a hunger strike", but which involved complete non-cooperation, including refusing to eat or drink. [31484] Other fathers' rights activists in Canada and elsewhere have staged hunger strikes after being unable to see their children for extended periods of time.

Akbar Ganji

Akbar Ganji is an Iranianmarker journalist imprisoned in Evin prisonmarker since April 22, 2000. Ganji was on a hunger strike between May 19, 2005 [31485] and early August, 2005, except for a 12-day period of leave he was granted on May 30, 2005 ahead of the ninth presidential elections on June 17, 2005. He is represented by a group of lawyers, including the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Shirin Ebadi. While on hunger strike Ganji wrote two letters to the free people of the world: 1 2. On July 12, 2005 the White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in a statement that the US president, George W. Bush, called on Iran to release Ganji "immediately and unconditionally." "Mr. Ganji is sadly only one victim of a wave of repression and human rights violations engaged in by the Iranian regime", "His calls for freedom deserve to be heard. His valiant efforts should not go in vain. The president calls on all supporters of human rights and freedom, and the United Nations, to take up Ganji's case and the overall human rights situation in Iran." "Mr. Ganji, please know that as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you", the statement said.

Guantánamo Bay hunger strikes

During the middle of 2005, detainees held by the United Statesmarker at the Guantanamo Bay detention campmarker initiated two hunger strikes.

The first hunger strike ended on July 28, 2005, when prison authorities agreed to make concessions. According to some accounts , half a dozen detainees were close to death at that point. According to some accounts so many detainees were being forced to receive intravenous rehydration, the prison's well-equipped infirmary was overwhelmed and detainees had to be transferred to the naval hospital.

According to human rights workers, the prison authorities had a waiver form they called upon detainees to sign if they wanted to refuse intravenous rehydration. The detainees had all been advised, by their lawyers, not to sign anything their lawyers hadn't reviewed.

One concession the American authorities acknowledge making was to supply the detainees with a bottle of clean water to drink with each meal.

The detainees reported, to their lawyers, that the prison authorities had agreed that they would begin to treat them in a manner consistent with the Geneva Conventions. A week later, when they said that the prison authorities were not abiding by their commitment, they initiated a second hunger strike in early August.

Many of the individuals captured in Afghanistan were taken to be held at Guantanamo Baymarker without trial. These individuals were termed as “enemy combatants.” Until July 7 2006, these individuals had been treated outside of the Geneva Conventions by the United States administration.

One of the hunger strikers, eighteen year old Omar Khadr, has told his lawyer that other triggers for the hunger strike include the detainees' ongoing concerns that the guards are showing disrespect for their religion, including turning on loud fans, playing loud music, and whistling, to disrupt the detainees' prayer meetings. Khadr reports that the prison authorities are not honoring their obligation by broadcasting the call to prayers four times a day rather than five. Khadr reports that many of the detainees resent that sometimes female GIs broadcast the call to prayer.

American Department of Defensemarker (DoD) spokesman Lieutenant Commander Flex Plexico said on July 21, 2005 that fifty detainees were involved in the first hunger strike, and spokesman Brad Blackner said on September 2, 2005 that seventy six detainees were participating in the second hunger strike. Human-rights workers estimate that both hunger strikes have between 150 and 200 participants.

On October 26, 2005, a federal judge ordered the Government to provide information about the condition of detainees to lawyers representing the hunger strikers. The Government has contested the detainees' claims of rough treatment during forced feeding. The court's decision reflects major changes from the early years of the camp's operation, when almost no information was obtainable by attorneys. The Government did not immediately announce whether it would appeal the judge's ruling.

On November 4 U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated at a Pentagonmarker news conference that he would not permit United Nations investigators to interview the striking detainees. He said the International Committee of the Red Cross would continue to have unlimited access to interview them.

On December 30, 2005, the military reported that there are eighty-four strikers as of Christmas Day, forty-six having joined that day.

In the April 14, 2008, edition of the New Yorker magazine, Jeffrey Toobin reported that there are currently only about ten hunger strikers at Guantanamo.

Mother Poopathy - Fast to Death


On 9 February 2006, the New York Times reported that hunger strikers in Guantánamo were being strapped into restraining chairs for hours a day for force-feeding and to prevent vomiting up the food as attempts at suicide. An officer said the number of strikers peaked at 131 around September 11, 2005. Reportedly there was concern over the international impact if a striker were to die. Detainees' lawyers called the methods brutal and inhumane, and said other coercive methods were used, such as being placed in cold air-conditioned isolation cells. The assistant secretary of defense for health affairs said it was a moral question: allow suicide, or take steps to preserve life.On 21 February 2006, the military commander at Guantánamo conceded that the authorities were using restraining chairs as reported earlier. (NY Times 22 February)

The September 28, 2006 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine contained an article examining the medical ethics of physician-supervised force-feeding of hunger-striking detainees. The article questioned the legal and ethical foundation for physician participation in the force-feeding, writing that "...military physicians cannot follow military orders to force-feed competent prisoners without violating basic precepts of medical ethics never to harm them by means of their medical knowledge."

On April 9, 2007, the New York Times reported that according to military officials and detainees' lawyers a new hunger strike has broken out at Guantanamo, with thirteen detainees being force-fed daily. In the April 14, 2008, edition of the New Yorker Magazine, Jeffrey Toobin reported that two detainees are currently being force-fed.

Sami Al-Arian

On December 6, 2005, a federal jury acquitted Dr. Sami Al-Arian on 8 of 17 counts against him, while deadlocking 10-2 in favor of acquittal on the other 9. Nevertheless, on March 2, 2006, Al-Arian pled guilty to 1 count of conspiracy and was later sentenced to the maximum 57 months in prison [31486] The deal came after 11 years of FBI investigations, wiretaps and searches, 3 years of trial preparation by federal prosecutors and a 6-month trial, during which time Al-Arian had spent more than three years in jail, most of it in solitary confinement. [31487] Amnesty International said Al-Arian's pre-trial detention conditions "appeared to be 'gratuitously punitive' " and stated "the restrictions imposed on Dr Al-Arian appeared to go beyond what were necessary on security grounds and were inconsistent with international standards for humane treatment." These include: 23 hour cell-confinement, routine shackling, deprivement of tools and communication to prepare for his defense, and a third of the cell space required by UN international standards.

On January 22, 2007, Al-Arian began a hunger strike to "protest continued government harassment" after he was held in contempt of court for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury. In a verbal agreement that appears in court transcripts, federal prosecutors agreed that Al-Arian would not have to testify before the grand jury but the agreement was disregarded by a federal judges.

Legal situation

Article 6 of the 1975 World Medical Association Tokyo Declaration states that doctors can undertake force-feeding under certain restricted rules and only where a second, independent physician is consulted and agrees to the move:-

"Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially. The decision as to the capacity of the prisoner to form such a judgment should be confirmed by at least one other independent physician. The consequences of the refusal of nourishment shall be explained by the physician to the prisoner."

The World Medical Association recently revised and updated its Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers (see: Among many changes, it unambiguously states that force feeding is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment in its Article 21.

The American Medical Association is a member of the World Medical Association, but the AMA's members are not bound by the WMA's decisions, and neither organization has formal legal powers.

Hunger strikes in popular culture

  • In an episode of the TV show Strangers with Candy, Jerri Blank goes on a hunger strike after her school forbids her from posting a photoghaph of her vagina as part of an art display. She eventually gives in after being offered fudge.

  • In the episode "Please Don't Kill Me" of the comedy program Mr. Show, a man on a hunger strike professes his lust for food and asks the government he is protesting against to change what actually constitutes a hunger strike.

  • In The Drew Carey Show episode "See Drew Run," Drew demands that his company build a skywalk so that people can get to the parking garage safely. Drew says he will go on a hunger strike, and he does for a week. However, he doesn't lose any weight and has to pretend that he did in order to get the skywalk built.

  • Temple of the Dog's most well-known song is called "Hunger Strike." The idea behind the song is, by witnessing injustice in food distribution, to steal bread to give to the poor and protest in solidarity with them via a hunger strike.

  • In the 2006 film V for Vendetta, Evey Hammond's parents were said to have died in a hunger strike. As the film takes place in England, this fits with the concept of hunger strikes being closely tied to the British Isles.

See also


  1. David Beresford. Ten Men Dead, (New York: Atlantic Press, 1987), 7. ISBN 0-87113-702-X
  2. Ibid., 8.
  3. See, e.g., the 1981 Irish hunger strike.
  5. Tibetans sit on hunger strike unto death in Kathmandu
  6. Conditions deteriorate as TYC hunger strikers complete a week
  7. Police Take Hunger Strikers to Hospital for Medical Care
  8. D.A. Binchy, "A Pre-Christian Survival in Mediaeval Irish Hagiography," in Ireland in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 168–178; Rudolf Thurneysen, "Das Fasten beim Pfändungsverfahren," Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 15 (1924–25) 260–275.
  9. The Starry Plough on 1981 Irish hunger strikes
  10. "Ex-professor gets over 4 years in Florida Jihad case", Reuters, May 1, 2006
  11. Amnesty International raises concern about prison conditions of Dr Sami Al-Arian
  12. Witness Is Silent in Terror Probe: Ex-Professor Says Grand Jury Testimony Would Endanger Him. Washington Post. November 14, 2006.
  13. Family says inmate's hunger strike not near end. Wilmington Star (NC). February 17, 2007.
  14. Gaunt Al-Arian shocks family by Meg Laughlin. St. Petersburg Times. March 20, 2007.

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