Secrecy Still Shrouds Guantánamo’s Five-Year Hunger Striker


Imagine being strapped into a restraint chair twice a day for nearly 2000 days, with a feeding tube forced up your nose and into your stomach, and liquid nutrient pumped through it. According to an Associated Press report, Abdul Rahman Shalabi, Guantánamo’s longest-term hunger striker, is “occasionally eating solid food,” but he remains seriously underweight, and has medical complications as a result of his extraordinary hunger strike, which has lasted for five years and two months.

Shalabi, a Saudi, weighed 124 pounds when he arrived at Guantánamo in January 2002, but has rarely weighed more than 110 pounds since he began his hunger strike in August 2005, as part of the largest hunger strike in the prison’s history. At one point, in November 2005, he weighed just 100 pounds (PDF), and when the authorities took harsh steps to bring the strike under control in January 2006, importing a number of restraint chairs to make sure that it “wasn’t convenient” for the strikers to continue (as Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, the head of the US Southern Command, explained to the New York Times), Shalabi, Tarek Baada, a Yemeni, and another Saudi, Ahmed Zuhair (who was released last June), refused to give up.

In September 2009, after four years of being force-fed daily, Shalabi weighed just 108 pounds, and wrote a distressing letter to his lawyers, in which he stated, “I am a human who is being treated like an animal.” In November 2009, when his letter was included in a court submission, one of his lawyers, Julia Tarver Mason, stated, “He’s two pounds away from organ failure and death.”

Although it was understandable that the US authorities wished to prevent the PR disaster of having a prisoner die by starving himself to death, medical staff who participated in the force-feeding have run up against trenchant criticism from others in the profession, because medical ethics have long prohibited force-feeding mentally competent hunger strikers, recognizing that it is often the only manner in which they can make protests about the conditions of their confinement.

This is troubling enough, but a far more worrying aspect of the story of Guantánamo’s hunger strikers concerns the three men who died in mysterious circumstances in June 2006, and who may, according to reports by four soldiers who were present at the time, have been killed, either accidentally or deliberately, rather than having committed suicide, as claimed in the authorities’ official narrative. All three were long-term hunger strikers, as were the two other prisoners who allegedly committed suicide — Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi, in May 2007, and Muhammad Salih, a Yemeni, in June 2009 — and the disturbing subtext is that their resistance to injustice, through hunger striking, made them powerful enemies somewhere in the base’s command structure, or in the various shadowy agencies responsible for interrogation.

To the extent that he has survived his long ordeal, Abdul Rahman Shalabi is at least fortunate, although it is clear that five years on a hunger strike has taken a heavy toll on his health. This is in spite of the generally upbeat tone of the authorities’ commentary, which was included in a submission as part of the government’s response to a motion submitted by his lawyers, asking for independent medical experts to be allowed to travel to Guantánamo to examine Shalabi’s physical and mental health, and to treat him if necessary.

According to Navy Capt. Monte Bible, who commands the Joint Medical Group at Guantánamo, Shalabi “has begun to eat such things as pasta, bread, cake, seafood, baklava, cookies, peanut butter, cheese and ice cream,” and medical logs submitted by the government noted that he first ate solid food in February, when a guard “reported seeing him eat a granola bar behind a newspaper, trying to shield himself from view,” and he “received seven Slim Jims — a dried meat snack – and a pack of gum from a visiting attorney.” The next month, according to the log, he “received a sticky bun from night guards at the hospital,” where he is still held, and in July he “ate grapes, spaghetti with meat sauce, two pieces of baklava and a banana.”

Despite this, however, the authorities conceded that Shalabi weighed only 101 pounds — just two-thirds of his “ideal body weight” — in September, and also noted that doctors had diagnosed him with gastroparesis, a condition which slows the digestive system. According to Capt. Bible, it “causes constipation, bloating and abdominal pain,” and “was apparently caused by a weakening of his abdominal muscles as a result of the fast,” although he added that it “may go away as Shalabi begins to eat more solid food.”

His lawyers were less upbeat. Although they noted that he has eaten “high-fat foods, such as peanut butter, ice cream and cheese,” they continued to “express concern about the potentially dangerous long-term effects of his hunger strike,” as the Associated Press described it. One of his attorneys, Jana Ramsey stated, “For months, Mr. Shalabi’s weight has hovered around a dangerous line.”

It is unknown when the court will rule, but it is unlikely that the lawyers’ request will be granted, as judges have a long history of refusing to interfere in the day-to-day running of Guantánamo, or in seeking to allow visits by independent medical experts. In addition, as the Associated Press noted, “Lawyers for the government argued that outside experts are unnecessary in part because the prisoner has cooperated with medical personnel at Guantánamo and is showing signs of improvement.”

For a man who still weighs little more than an anorexic model, it is uncertain to what extent the odd peanut butter snack or ice cream can be regarded as “signs of improvement.” However, the authorities will be hoping that Capt. Bible’s intervention, and the scattered references to food in their logs, will be enough to prevent anyone with an objective point of view from being allowed to meet Shalabi in Guantánamo, where secrecy remains part of the very fabric of the prison, 20 months after President Obama came to power promising to close it, and 19 months after he received a specially commissioned report which concluded that the prison “complies with the humanitarian requirements of the Geneva Conventions.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners. Cross-posted on Yahya’s Blog and Uruknet.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the hunger strikes and deaths at Guantánamo, see Suicide at Guantánamo: the story of Abdul Rahman al-Amri (May 2007), Suicide at Guantánamo: a response to the US military’s allegations that Abdul Rahman al-Amri was a member of al-Qaeda (May 2007), Shaker Aamer, A South London Man in Guantánamo: The Children Speak (July 2007), Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that he will die (September 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo (October 2007), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth? (October 2007), Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo (Yousef al-Shehri and Murtadha Makram) (November 2007), A letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj) (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest Guantánamo charges (June 2008), Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo (June 2008), Guantánamo Suicide Report: Truth or Travesty? (August 2008), The Pentagon Can’t Count: 22 Juveniles Held at Guantánamo (November 2008), Seven Years Of Guantánamo, And A Call For Justice At Bagram (January 2009), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), Obama’s “Humane” Guantánamo Is A Bitter Joke (February 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent Home (March 2009), Guantánamo, Bagram and the “Dark Prison”: Binyam Mohamed talks to Moazzam Begg (March 2009), Forgotten: The Second Anniversary Of A Guantánamo Suicide (May 2009), Yemeni Prisoner Muhammad Salih Dies At Guantánamo (June 2009), Death At Guantánamo Hovers Over Obama’s Middle East Visit (June 2009), Guantánamo’s Hidden History: Shocking Statistics of Starvation (June 2009), Binyam Mohamed: Was Muhammad Salih’s Death In Guantánamo Suicide? (June 2009), Torture In Guantánamo: The Force-feeding Of Hunger Strikers (for ACLU, June 2009), Murders at Guantánamo: Scott Horton of Harper’s Exposes the Truth about the 2006 “Suicides” (January 2010), Torture in Afghanistan and Guantánamo: Shaker Aamer’s Lawyers Speak (February 2010), The Third Anniversary of a Death in Guantánamo (May 2010), Omar Deghayes and Terry Holdbrooks Discuss Guantánamo (Part Three): Deaths at the Prison (June 2010), Suicide or Murder at Guantánamo? (1st anniversary of Mohammed al-Hanashi’s death, June 2010), Murders at Guantánamo: The Cover-Up Continues (June 2010), US Court Denies Justice to Dead Men at Guantánamo (October 2010).

2 Responses

  1. Connie says...

  2. Prison-Wide Hunger Strike Still Rages at Guantánamo | IWDTV says...

    […] At the time, the authorities stated that just six of the 166 men still held were classified as hunger-strikers, and that five were being force-fed through tubes inserted up their nose and into their stomachs — these men all being long-term hunger-strikers; and it is alarming that at least one of them has been on a hunger strike since 2005. […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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