Moral Low Ground

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Torturing Guantánamo’s Hunger Strikers

Chair used to restrain and force-feed GITMO detainees (Photo: Pentagon)

Chair used to restrain and force-feed GITMO detainees (Photo: Pentagon)

Hunger striking detainees at the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, many of them deemed no threat and cleared for release for years, are being tortured by their American captors through excruciatingly painful and medically unethical force-feeding.

More than half of the 166 remaining GITMO detainees have been cleared for release, some of them since as far back as 2004. Some have been cleared multiple times. Adnan Latif, a Yemeni who’d been cleared three times– twice during the Bush administration and once under Obama– killed himself after years of indefinite detention and torture. He’d been unjustly imprisoned without charge or trial for more than a decade. Dozens of Yemenis have been cleared for release but President Obama refuses to repatriate them due to the current political climate in their home country. Collective punishment for a situation they have nothing to do with is the soul-crushing reality for GITMO’s Yemeni prisoners.

More than half of the remaining detainees have now gone on a hunger strike. They are protesting their continued indefinite detention as well as conditions in the prison, specifically alleged mistreatment of their Korans. These detainees, many of them desperate and hopeless, have expressed their willingness to die. The United States does not want them to die and has dispatched a small army of medical personnel to deal with the hunger strikers.

One of the ways in which US personnel deal with them is by force-feeding striking detainees. This is done by restraining the prisoner and inserting a naso-gastric tube into his nose and down his throat. Then nourishing sustenance can be delivered directly into the detainee’s stomach.

Sixteen GITMO detainees are currently being force-fed. This is a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. “Doctors should never be party to actual coercive feeding, with prisoners being tied down and intravenous drips or esophageal tubes being forced into them,” Hernán Reyes of the of the International Red Cross asserted. “Such actions can be considered a form of torture, and under no circumstances should doctors participate in them, [even under] the pretext of ‘saving the hunger striker’s life.’”

The World Medical Association’s Declaration of Malta advises doctors not to force-feed prisoners who choose to hunger strike and understand the consequences of their actions, stressing that “forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable.” Following the WMA Malta rules, Britain once permitted hunger-striking Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners to starve themselves to death.

The US military euphemistically refers to force-feeding as “assisted feeding.” This implies that the detainees are seeking help. They are not. Samir Moqbel, a 35-year-old Yemeni who says he traveled to Afghanistan to find work to support his impoverished family, was one of the first prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo Bay in early 2002. He was also one of the first to go on the current hunger strike, which began in February. While lying in a hospital bed last month, eight Americans in riot gear, members of an Immediate Reaction Force (IRF), swarmed him and tied his hands and feet to his bed. IRFs are usually called in to perform cell extractions on unruly detainees. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill described their methods:

“IRF teams operate at Guantánamo as an extrajudicial terror squad that has regularly brutalized prisoners… gang-beating them, forcing their heads into toilets, breaking bones, gouging their eyes, squeezing their testicles, urinating on a prisoner’s head, banging their heads on concrete floors.”

botched IRF training mission in which the team mistook a US soldier for a detainee left him with severe brain injuries and seizures that resulted in his medical discharge and a diagnosis of intractable epilepsy.

Last month, an IRF paid Samir Moqbel a hospital visit, restraining him and forcing an intravenous tube into his hand. He was tied up for more than a day, not permitted to pray or go to the bathroom. Then came the feeding tube.

“I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way,” Moqbel wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece published last week. “As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up… but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.”

Because there weren’t enough qualified medical professionals to keep up with the hunger strike, painful mistakes have been made by overworked nurses and other staff.

“During one force-feeding the nurse pushed the tube about 18 inches into my stomach, hurting me more than usual, because she was doing things so hastily,” Moqbel wrote. “…It was so painful that I begged them to stop feeding me. The nurse refused to stop feeding me… When they come to force me into the chair, if I refuse to be tied up, they call the [IRF] team. So I have a choice. Either I can exercise my right to protest my detention, and be beaten up, or I can submit to painful force-feeding.”

In the early days of the Obama administration, there were reports that GITMO medical staff were intentionally using naso-gastric feeding tubes that were thicker than necessary in order to deliberately harm hunger striking detainees. Sometimes these tubes were as thick as a human finger. Some detainees vomited blood after insertion. Tubes were sometimes improperly inserted so that they entered lungs instead of stomachs. Detainees reported that the only thing that hurt more than the tube’s insertion is when it was yanked out. Here’s an actual description from Julia Tarver, an attorney for some GITMO detainees:

“Nasal gastric tubes [were removed] by placing a foot on one end of the tube and yanking the detainee’s head back by his hair, causing the tube to be painfully ejected from the detainee’s nose. Then, in front of the Guantánamo physicians… the guards took a nasal gastric tube from one detainee, with no sanitation whatsoever, reinserted it in the nose of a different detainee. When these tubes were reinserted, the detainees could see the blood and stomach bile from the other detainees remaining on the tubes. Medical staff made no effort to intervene. This was one of many incidents.”

Adnan Latif, the thrice-cleared Yemeni who committed suicide last year, said the insertion of the naso-gastric tube felt like a nail being hammered up his nose and like a knife stabbing down his throat. He covered himself in his own excrement in a desperate bid to avoid being force-fed; GITMO personnel just shoved the tube through his feces-encrusted nostril.

There were also reports of GITMO hunger strikers being over-fed, as well as reported cases of personnel lacing feeding formula with laxatives so detainees were stricken with diarrhea while they were strapped down to chairs and had no choice but to relieve themselves where they sat.

As the current hunger strike continues well into its third month, some detainees have become so emaciated– one man reportedly weighs just 77 pounds (35 kg)– that observers fear they will not last much longer. Such is the desperation felt by these men, many of them who should have been released years ago.

“Hunger strikes are a desperate act by people who have lost hope in the prospect of ever being released,” said Donna McKay, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights. “It is unconscionable that we continue to imprison 86 men who have been determined to pose no threat to the United States. President Obama should exercise his authority to safely transfer these people to be released in other countries without further delay.”

But that is extremely unlikely. Despite Boumediene v. Bush, the 2008 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed GITMO detainees’ right to challenge their imprisonment, the court later ruled that it would no longer hear their appeals. And despite promising to close Guantánamo within a year of taking office, President Obama has given up on doing so– this January, the administration shut down the office dedicated to closing the prison.

Obama also vowed that the United States would no longer practice torture in the post-Bush era. This promise has also been broken.

Before taking his life, Adnan Latif wrote: “Everything is over. Life is going to hell… America, what happened to you?”

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One Comment

  1. PerryApril 28, 2013 at 5:11 pmReply

    Truly disgusting, if anyone in the USA treated an animal in the same way as these yet innocent prisoners, they would be facing a raft of charges in any court. Americas’ international reputation has sunk to a new low.

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