Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who oversees Guantanamo Bay prison, has ignored a letter from a group of NGOs including Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, Physicians for Human Rights and Reprieve, in which they ask him to release the videotapes of detainees being force-fed.
The signatories write in the letter (the full text of which is below): “This administration has promised the American people transparency in the conduct of government affairs. If, as the government repeatedly claims, the force-feeding of hunger striking detainees at Guantanamo Bay is being done in a lawful and humane manner then subjecting these videotapes to public scrutiny would seem to be the best way to demonstrate this fact.”
The videotapes have been classified at the ‘secret’ level and though some footage of detainee Abu Wa’el Dhiab being force-fed has been released to his lawyers they are not, in an extraordinary level of censorship, able to discuss the contents even with other security-cleared Guantanamo attorneys.
16 major media organisations including the New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, and The Guardian, have intervened in the case of Mr. Dhiab asking that the videotapes be released in the public interest. Judge Gladys Kessler, who is in charge of the case, has yet to rule on their intervention.
Syrian detainee Abu Wa’el Dhiab has been cleared for release since 2009 and is conducting an ongoing hunger strike in peaceful protest at his indefinite detention without charge or trial. The methods being used to force-feed him are, say his lawyers at NGO Reprieve, gratuitously brutal. They have asked the court to force Guantanamo authorities to stop the punitive way in which he is force-fed. Following a recent visit with Mr. Dhiab his attorney Cori Crider described, in an emergency declaration submitted to the court, her concern over Mr. Dhiab’s extremely poor health after she witnessed him lie down during their meeting in an attempt to alleviate his pain.
Alka Pradhan, a Reprieve attorney for Mr. Dhiab, said: “It is very disappointing that the man in charge of overseeing Guantanamo – where our client is being held without charge or trial, despite having been cleared for release years ago by President Obama’s administration – is ignoring this letter by some of the most prominent NGOs in the world. The methods being used to force-feed our desperately ill client are gratuitously brutal. President Obama keeps saying that he wants his administration to be transparent and accountable; one way to prove that he means it is for his Secretary of Defense to respond to this important letter and make the video tapes available for the public to see the ongoing abuse at Guantanamo.”
Dear Mr. Secretary,
We write to ask that videotapes of the force-feedings taking place at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility be disclosed in the public interest. US officials first admitted to the existence of such tapes in April, during the habeas proceedings of Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian detainee cleared for release. Several tapes of his force-feedings have been disclosed to his legal team as part of his habeas proceedings. They are unable to reveal the contents of the tapes but have broadly described them as “disturbing” and allege they are evidence of unlawful force-feedings taking place at Guantanamo Bay. The tapes are currently classified at the “Secret” level and therefore are not available to the public.
Last year, in a speech at the National Defense University, President Barack Obama reflected on the force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike at Guantánamo, asking: “Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?” The World Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Torture, on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, and on Health, have all denounced force-feeding detainees who are on a voluntary and informed hunger strike. According to recent reports, at least one medical provider at Guantanamo is refusing to participate in force-feeding.
Many of the signatories to this letter have previously expressed serious concern that JTF-GTMO’s hunger strike management practices violate medical ethics, medical care standards and human rights obligations, and that those practices are improperly shrouded in secrecy.
The legality and morality of force-feeding at Guantánamo is a matter of intense public interest and ongoing concern for the medical and human rights community. Sixteen major US media organizations have petitioned the US District Court for the District of Columbia for access to the tapes, noting in their request that “the videotapes are the most direct and informative evidence of Government conduct that petitioner [Dhiab] alleges to be unlawful.”
It is unclear what national security interest the United States is protecting by designating them “Secret.” Under the US executive order governing the designation of classified information, material should not be classified in order to conceal violations of law or prevent embarrassment. We therefore urge you to have the tapes reviewed to determine whether what is depicted in them should be declassified and disclosed in the public interest. Mr. Dhiab’s lawyers have said that he has consented to waive any privacy interests associated with the disclosure of the tapes.
This administration has promised the American people transparency in the conduct of government affairs. If, as the government repeatedly claims, the force-feeding of hunger striking detainees at Guantanamo Bay is being done in a lawful and humane manner then subjecting these videotapes to public scrutiny would seem to be the best way to demonstrate this fact.
American Civil Liberties Union
Center for Constitutional Rights
Defending Dissent Foundation
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Government Accountability Project
Human Rights Watch
MACAT (Massachusetts Campaign against Torture)
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
No More Guantanamos
North Carolina Stop Torture Now
Physicians for Human Rights
Tackling Torture at the Top Committee of Women Against Military Madness
The Constitution Project
The Sunlight Foundation
Witness against Torture