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Federal Court Weighs Gitmo Force-Feeding

Gitmo prisoners remain on hunger strike as President Obama refuses to use his executive power to end inhumane force-feeding and close the prison.

Michael Ratner: Gitmo prisoners remain on hunger strike as President Obama refuses to use his executive power to end inhumane force-feeding and close the prison.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of The Ratner Report.

Now joining us from New York is Michael Ratner. Michael is the President emeritus for the Center for Constitutional Rights, and he’s a regular contributor to The Real News.

Thanks for joining us, Michael.


DESVARIEUX: So, Michael, what are you working on this week?

RATNER: Well, this is Guantanamo week. And the Center for Constitutional Rights has [represented Guantanamo] detainees for many years—actually, the first case. But it’s Guantanamo week in the sense that finally forced feeding at Guantanamo is going on trial—or went on trial for a period of two or three days. That’s the question of the legality of the forced feeding that the U.S. government does at Guantanamo. There’s no decision yet. Hopefully there’ll be a decision in a few days.

I want to remind people about Guantanamo. It’s still there, 13th year coming up. A hundred and forty-nine people are detained. Seventy-nine have been cleared for release, which means they shouldn’t be there at all, even according to the U.S. government. But they’re still there.

Obama, as people may recall, promised to close it within a year of him taking office. That’s 2009. It should have been closed in 2010. Obama’s had clay feet on this issue, just not lifted a finger, really. Even today as we speak, Jessica, [Secretary of] Defense Hagel could release 11 people who have been given places to go. He has refused to do that or has been unwilling to do it. Why hasn’t Obama just picked up the phone and called Secretary of Defense Hagel and says, you do it or you’re out of here? So we’re seeing Obama with clay feet.

One means of protest by the Guantanamo detainees has been the hunger strike. And that’s been going on over the years. There’s been hundreds on the hunger strike at different times when there were more people there, and it has brought attention to Guantanamo. The U.S. has tried to break it numerous times by what it calls forced feeding.

Many have heard of forced feedings before and how they’re done. The detainee is extracted from the cell by force by four really heavily armored U.S. military people, pulled out of that cell vigorously, placed into a five-point restraint chair, arms bound, feet bound, head bound. A medical person takes a large tube, which we believe is much thicker than it needs to be, forces it through the nose into the stomach. And then this liquid food called Ensure is poured down through the tube. This happens twice a day, almost two-thirds of a gallon sometimes at a time.

One of the lawyers for the Guantanamo detainees on this particular case, the forced feeding case, calls it medicalized water cure. The water cure was a type of torture that the Japanese imposed on U.S. prisoners of war and Allied prisoners in World War II, consisted of putting a tremendous amount of water into their bodies.

The protocols for forced feeding at Guantanamo have been made intentionally more cruel over the years, recently made more harsh in 2013. And the brutality of what the U.S. has done has actually decreased the numbers of people willingly going on the hunger strike. It is a form of torture, in my view.

The U.S. is doing it because they can’t afford, in their view, to have people die at Guantanamo, because of the press and publicity that will come to the world’s and this country’s attention if they do, and that might force them to close Guantanamo. If you recall Obama’s speech a year ago, after the last hunger strike a year ago May, after the last big hunger strike, he again promised to close it, in part because the country was beginning to scream, what’s going on with that hunger strike at Guantanamo?

Back to force-feeding. There are many legal and ethical objections to forced feeding, and that’s what we’re seeing the trial on.

First of all, it’s always been the rule in the law that it’s up to the detainee to decided to eat or not to eat. It’s like any other knowingly made decision you make about your life, medical decision in particular—pull out the tube, leave the tube in, let me die in peace, let me not die. It’s a volitional decision. You can’t be force-fed. International Committee of the Red Cross has said you can’t be. The World Medical Association has said it’s unethical to do so. It’s never ethically acceptable.

And we as lawyers have argued and said—and it is the law in many places, including in the European Court of Human Rights, that forced feeding cannot be done. It’s a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and can amount—and I think in the case of Guantanamo does amount—to torture.

The rules for force-feeding were developed particularly around the Irish hunger strikes. Bobby Sands was someone who actually died from a hunger strike. And, of course, it changed the course of the Irish revolt in a very positive way. But out of that came the belief and the legal requirement that you can’t force-feed [people against] their will.

Interestingly enough, in one of the few times that Israel is actually doing something, you could say, better, or at least less cruel than the United States: Israel does not force-feed it’s Palestinian political prisoners. It actually, as they get close to death, allows them to be released from prison. The reason for that is the same reason that would happen in Guantanamo, is that if Palestinians die in Israeli prisons, there will be huge revolts against Israel in the occupied territories.

So, for years, because of this background, the Guantanamo detainees and their lawyers have been trying to stop the force-feeding, which is particularly cruel, at Guantanamo.

And, finally, as I said when I opened, a case has gone to trial. The detainee is named Dhiab (D-H-I-A-B). He’s been in Guantanamo since 2002. He was cleared for release—in other words, he shouldn’t be there any longer—in 2009. He’s been on a hunger strike for seven years. You heard it right. Seven years. He does not go willingly out of his cell. He has forcibly been extracted from his cell, they estimate, 1,300 times and force-fed in the restraining chair.

Phase one of the trial concerned videotapes. And that’s important. There are 28 videotapes of the Dhiab being forcibly extracted from the cell and then force-fed. The government didn’t want to release those tapes. They didn’t want to release them to the public. They claim national security. A federal judge last week, Judge [Kessler, she] watched the 28 tapes and said the government’s claims were vague and speculative about national security and that the tapes had to be released. The government claimed that the detainees will come up with countermeasures for fighting back against force-feeding, but the government never said, particularly considering the restrained situation of the detainees, what those countermeasures could be. So she’s forced the release of those tapes. Unfortunately, you or I have not seen those tapes yet. They have a few more days to do that.

But my guess is the government will appeal to try and hold up the release of those tapes. Why would they do that? Nothing to do with national security, unless you consider national security to be the U.S. population not finding out what it’s government is doing to force-feed people at Guantanamo. In other words, the U.S. is afraid of the outcry with these tapes of—a torture, really, would be seen.

Phase two is the trial itself. Two days of evidence at that trial. I’ll just summarize the essential claims. One is that they’ve taken away medical care from Dhiab because he refuses to actually go be force-fed. They’ve taken away his back brace, his wheelchair. The use of cell extractions, of course, is in the litigation. And the use of force-feeding itself is an especially cruel act. And the effort to get that either banned altogether—or get it done in a different fashion, but, I think, banned altogether.

The trial is now over. We’re awaiting a decision. I’m not sure what the judge will do. Clearly it’s cruel. Clearly something has to be done to stop it, I hope. So after years of it, it may be the end of force-feeding—let’s hope so—and perhaps the end of Guantanamo.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Michael Ratner, thank you so much for joining us.

RATNER: Thank you for having me on The Real News

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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