A recent federal court decision re-sanctions the force-feeding of hunger strikers at the Guantánamo prison. According to the UN and other international bodies, such practice inflicts pain, suffering and long-term injuries and constitutes torture. Forced cell extraction and the use of dangerous drugs to induce prisoner compliance add to the abuse. The military’s refusal to disclose the number of hunger strikers violates President Obama’s promise of government transparency and deprives the prisoners of their only means of communicating the deplorable conditions of their imprisonment.
In her May 21, 2014 decision reversing an earlier order that barred the forced feeding of a Guantánamo prisoner, Senior Federal District Judge Gladys Kessler effectively re-sanctioned a painful and medically dangerous procedure that is internationally condemned as torture.
Force-feeding violates international law. The International Red Cross and the United Nations have condemned the practice as cruel, inhuman and degrading. According to the World Medical Association, it is unethical for a doctor to participate in force-feeding.
Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab, the prisoner in question, was sentenced to death in absentia in Syria for “unspecified political crimes” and fled to Pakistan. When the local police arrested him in 2002 and turned him over to the United States, he soon found himself at Guantánamo, where he has been held in indefinite detention for the past 11 years and nine months. Although early military assessments described Diyab as a high-risk detainee with al-Qaedalinks, he insisted on his innocence and was never charged with a crime. Four years ago, an interagency panel cleared him for release. He is among the 154 prisoners still at Guantánamo (at a cost to US taxpayers of almost $5 billion a year to keep them there). When Diyab’s promised release disappeared into limbo, he and other prisoners resorted to hunger strikes – a form of speech for prisoners who have no other legitimate way to communicate the deplorable conditions of their imprisonment.
To quell the strikes (and the international outrage they provoked), prison authorities responded with a regime of forced feeding.
Put yourself in the shoes of Yemeni prisoner Emad Hassan. Cleared for release from Guantánamo since 2009, he has been on hunger strike since 2007. According to the UK human rights organization Reprieve, Hassan “has been force-fed more than 5,000 times since 2007 as part of the military’s effort to break his hunger strike.” As a result, he now “suffers from serious internal injuries.” His lawsuit (Hassan v. Obama) highlights “the increasing brutality” of the force-feeding process, “which the military has amended step-by-step to make it so painful that only the most courageous peaceful protester can continue.”
Hassan’s complaint alleges that larger than necessary tubes were inserted into his nostrils and withdrawn twice a day. When excessive liquid was forced through the tubes, he lost consciousness and spent two days in critical condition. He said that prisoners were force-fed in what he called “the torture chair,” where their hands, legs, waist, shoulders and head were strapped down tightly. Prisoners were also force-fed constipation drugs that caused them to defecate on themselves as they sat in the chair being fed. The complaint states that if Hassan vomited on himself during the procedure, “the atrocity would start all over again.” As a result of repeated force-feeds, Hassan suffers “severe gastric pain, damage to both his nostrils, sinus problems and bouts of pancreatitis.”
In an interview with his defense counsel Stafford Smith, Hassan said that the Guantánamo authorities sometimes forced him and other hunger strikers to take Reglan, a drug linked to a potentially irreversible and disfiguring disorder characterized by involuntary movements of the face, tongue or extremities.
A less reported abuse of hunger strikers is the practice of “forced cell extraction.” Moath al Alwi, a Guantánamo prisoner since 2002, described to Al Jazeera how it operates: “When I choose to remain in my cell in an act of peaceful protest against the force-feeding, the prison authorities send in a Forced Cell Extraction Team: six guards in full riot gear . . . . They pile up on top of me to the point I feel like my back is about to break. They then carry me out and strap me into the restraint chair, which we hunger strikers call the torture chair.”
So how many Guantánamo prisoners are still on hunger strike? Sadly, we don’t know. Since December 3, 2013 the military has refused to release that information – another blow to the president’s early pledge of transparency.
In his May 23, 2013 speech to the National Defense University, President Obama addressed the then ongoing practice of force-feeding. Here is what he said:
“Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.”
One year later, the force-feeding continues and Mr. Obama is silent.