Asylum seekers accuse U.S. guards of cracking down on hunger strike: lawsuit

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Guards at a U.S. detention center for immigrants in California used pepper spray, beatings and scalding hot showers last year to punish eight Central American men who went on a hunger strike, two of the men and their attorneys said on Tuesday.

Slideshow ( 5 images )

Human Rights Watch said inadequate health care led to the deaths of at least three immigrants over the past eight years at Adelanto Detention Facility near San Bernardino in Southern California, where the eight men were held after seeking asylum in the United States.

Legal complaints challenging conditions at U.S. detention facilities for immigrants have been made for years but the facilities have come under more scrutiny as U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration carries out a hardline policy on legal and illegal immigration.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency declined to respond to allegations in a civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of the men, citing the agency’s policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

“However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations,” ICE spokeswoman Lori K. Haley said in an email.

The eight men announced plans for a hunger strike on June 12, 2017, to peacefully protest lack of access to clean drinking water, quality food or clean clothes at Adelanto, according to the lawsuit, which said the men had fled violent criminal groups in their home countries of El Salvador and Honduras.

Guards responded by using pepper spray on the asylum seekers, beating some of them and placing the men in isolation for 10 days, the lawsuit said. The men ended their hunger strike within two days.

“They looked at us as if we were worse than criminals, because I don’t think they would treat criminals the way they treated us,” Alexander Antonio Burgos Mejia, 29, among the men suing over allegations of abuse, said at a news conference in Los Angeles. Mejia, who is from Honduras, is free on bond as he seeks asylum.

Another plaintiff, Josue Mateo Lemus Campos, 25, an immigrant from El Salvador who was also freed on bond from Adelanto, told reporters the scalding hot showers he was forced to endure after being pepper sprayed caused him “insufferable pain.”

GEO Group, the private company that runs Adelanto, said in a statement that the lawsuit was “completely baseless.” It said ICE reviewed the response to the strike and found no wrongdoing. The lawsuit was filed in May but was amended on Monday to add ICE as a defendant.

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Grant McCool