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From Waterboarding to Water Curing: Gitmo Detainee Sues Over Force-Feeding

Military protocols for force-feeding prisoners have been knowingly altered to inflict superfluous suffering.

For the first time ever, a U.S. court will consider a detainee’s allegations of torture and abuse at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

A Yemeni prisoner, Emad Abdullah Hassan, who has been cleared for release since 2009, initiated the first legal challenge this week to the military’s force-feeding procedures, which have been used against him and other Guantánamo detainees on hunger strike in protest over conditions at the prison since 2005.

Hassan alleges he has been force-fed more than 5,000 times since he went on hunger strike in 2007 in a military effort to silence his peaceful protest, and that he has incurred internal injuries as a result of the torturous procedures.

“All I want is what President Obama promised: my liberty, and fair treatment for others. I have been cleared for five years, and I have been force-fed for seven years. This is not a life worth living; it is a life of constant pain and suffering. While I do not want to die, it is surely my right to protest peacefully without being degraded and abused every day,” Hassan said in a statement released by the British human rights organization Reprieve, which filed for a preliminary injunction Tuesday to halt the abusive procedures, with attorneys Eric Lewis and Jon B. Eisenberg.

Hassan has been held without charge since 2002 and is still being detained despite the fact that the military has determined that he no longer represents a threat. Many Guantánamo detainees like Hassan continue to be held although they have been cleared for release because Congress has barred them from being transferred to U.S. soil, among other political and diplomatic obstacles beyond their control.

The court bid on behalf of Hassan is a natural outgrowth of a previous case heard last fall by a federal circuit court of appeals in Washington, D.C., in which a judge determined courts of appeal have jurisdiction over detainee challenges to conditions of confinement. Hassan v. Obama is the first detainee challenge to come in the aftermath of this ruling.

In response to the legal filing this week in the U.S. District Court, government officials have invoked the need to protect the health and safety of detainees.

“The Department of Defense has responsibility for the health, welfare and humane treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and I would refer you to them for further questions about the specifics of their policies and procedures,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told Al Jazeera. A Defense Department spokesman followed up by saying that since the case lists the president as a defendant, the department is unable to address the issue, but he called Hassan and his counsel “biased sources.”

Hassan’s legal team said force-feeding practices at Guantánamo amount to torture designed to cause gratuitous pain in an effort to silence the prisoners. The lawyers say the speed at which liquid is forced into prisoners’ stomachs is a form of water torture that is similar to waterboarding, and that prison officers forcefully remove nasal feeding tubes after each feeding, inflicting significant pain.

“There are two reasons why what [prison officials] are doing now is not serving [the goal of protecting the health and safety of detainees],” Eisenberg told Truthout. “There is absolutely no need to withdraw the feeding tube after the feeding session and re-insert it the next session. It hurts, and it’s dangerous because every time you do it there’s a danger of putting it into the lungs instead and causing the detainee to aspirate fluids; … Secondly, they are force-feeding long before there’s any serious threat to the health of these guys.”

Hassan’s legal team has requested the D.C. District Court to direct the military to adopt new protocols that conform to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons standards, which hold that the procedure should not be undergone until the prisoner is at imminent risk of death or great bodily injury.

In December last year, Guantánamo officials quietly admitted they had changed the force-feeding protocols. According to a letter from the Justice Department, obtained by Al Jazeera, officials revised their procedures for handling the hunger strike as well as their force-feeding methods in November 2013 to “better focus on the adverse health effects of clinically significant weight loss on each individual detainee.” But it remains unclear what specific changes were made to the prison’s Standard Operating Procedure and why officials may have made the revisions beyond their stated justifications.

From Waterboarding to “Water Curing”

Professional medical associations, such as the American Medical Association and the World Medical Association, have come out against the use of force-feeding tactics, calling the practice unethical and a violation of international medical policy concerning prisoners’ right to refuse nourishment.

Moreover, Hassan’s legal counsel filed a declaration by Steven H. Miles, a professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota, in support of their motion to enjoin the force-feeding procedures this week. The declaration lays out how current force-feeding practices at Guantánamo are comparable to an ancient form of torture known as “water curing,” which dates back to the Middle Ages. The tactic was also used as a form of military punishment during the Spanish-American War.

“‘Water cure’ variations have existed for hundreds and hundreds of years, but basically what they consist of is running large volumes of fluid into the intestines to cause the intestines to expand, which is incredibly painful,” Miles told Truthout. “What they’re doing at Guantánamo, at least according to the allegations in this [case], is that they have shifted to a punitive form of nasal-gastric feeding that is a far, far departure from anything that looks like a therapeutic process.”

Miles confirmed that the rate and amount of fluid that is being forced into the detainees’ stomachs is beyond what can be safely administered and that this process can produce a risk of an over-filled stomach, which can retch into the lungs. He also confirmed that this process, with the rates of speed and the amount of fluid being used, is capable of causing rupturing of internal organs.

“Apparently, [prison officials] recognize this problem, in part, because they are also giving laxatives with this to induce diarrhea, sometimes on the chair where the prisoner is sitting, but that too doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of the feeding procedure because the purpose of the feeding procedure is to put the fluid … into the intestines, have it sit in the intestines and be absorbed,” he said.

Abuse allegedly continues even after force-feeding sessions are over: The drugs prison officials are giving detainees for nausea in the aftermath of the sessions can produce extreme neurological effects such as tardive dyskinesia, a disorder resulting in involuntary body movements. Hassan told his legal counsel he was forced to take a drug called Reglan, which he said made him “feel crazy.”

“There is no evidence that shows that this drug has a significant effect on healthy people who have a normal gastric emptying [process],” Miles said. “The mere fact that they’re using this drug suggests that they realize they are over-filling the stomach.”

But even if Guantánamo officials were not using excessive speeds and amounts of fluid during force-feeding sessions or forcefully removing nasal feeding tubes after each session, the process of force-feeding by its nature is a violation of multiple codes of ethics held by medical professionals and meets the U.N.’s standard of “cruel and unusual punishment.” The U.N. has called the force-feeding of Guantánamo detainees torture and a breach of international law.

“For over a decade, abused prisoners at the U.S. military base have been denied any effective legal mechanism to challenge their treatment. This case calls upon U.S. judges to restore the most basic rights, medical standards and human dignity to these men at Guantánamo Bay,” said Lewis, legal counsel in the case, in a statement released by Reprieve.

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