I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us – just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.
On Sunday June 30, 2013, attorneys for four prisoners at Guantánamo filed a motion with the District Court in Washington D.C. The motion was submitted in response to the authorities’ force-feeding and forced medication of hunger strikers engaged in a prison-wide hunger strike that began in February 6, and that involves 106 of the remaining 166 prisoners according to the authorities, and at least 120 according to the prisoners. 44 of those men are being force-fed.
The four prisoners are Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, Ahmed Belbacha, and Nabil Hadjarab, both Algerians, and Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian, and both the Algerians are currently being force-fed.
All of them are amongst the 86 men (out of 166 prisoners in total) who were cleared for release by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in January 2010, but are still held. This is partly because of severe restrictions imposed by Congress, but President Obama promised to overcome these restrictions and to resume releasing prisoners in a major speech on national security issues on May 23, although not a single prisoner has been released since that promise was delivered.
The motion was submitted by the London-based legal action charity Reprieve, and Jon B. Eisenberg, an attorney in Oakland, California, and as Reprieve explained in a press release, the lawyers asked the court to issue a ruling to compel the government to “stop force-feeding in the prison and stop force-medicating prisoners, particularly with Reglan, a drug used by the US during the force-feeding process that when used for extended periods of time can cause severe neurological disorders, including one that mimics Parkinson’s disease.”
In a separate submission, Cori Crider, Reprieve’s Strategic Director, gave detailed accounts of her recent conversations with Ahmed Belbacha, Nabil Hadjarab and Abu Wa’el Dhiab, and I’m posting below the powerful declaration by Ahmed Belbacha, whose story we have covered here before, with mention of his fears of returning to Algeria, his two-year residency in the UK, and the offers to house him that have been made by individuals and communities in the UK and in the US. His Reprieve page is here.
Ahmed’s very obvious decency is readily apparent from his account, as is the reality of the situation in Guantánamo — not only of the body searches, reported in May, which have deterred many of the prisoners from speaking on the phone with their attorneys, but also about how some medical personnel have sadistic tendencies, and others are out of their depth and shocked at what they have been asked to do. His testimony also reveals a clear and unacceptable chain of command, in which the medical personnel are obliged to follow orders issued by the guards.
On Monday July 1, Judge Rosemary Collyer ordered the government to respond to the motion by midnight on Wednesday, as America’s Day of Independence from the tyranny of British rule begins — and questions must be asked about what happened to the laws and rights that were supposed to make this new nation proud to have overthrown tyranny and executive overreach.
I last spoke to Mr. Belhacha on May 30, 2013. We spent some time going through his draft declaration but were unable to finish in the time available. He instructed that I should proceed with what he told me in my name.
He indicated the degrading searches persist. I paraphrase his statements below: “They are still searching us in the same way, yes. I was searched twice just now, to come talk to you — going back, I don’t know what will happen, but probably the same.” (At this point I sensed he was uncomfortable discussing this issue and moved on.)
He also instructed me to convey the following about his participation in this motion.
Instruction to counsel
“I am participating in this hunger strike of my own free choice and am fully aware of the negative consequences which a long-term strike could have on my health. I accept these risks because hunger striking is the sole peaceful means that I have to protest my indefinite detention.
“I realize the consequences of ending the force feeding regime. Understanding this, I ask the Court to stop the prison authorities from force feeding and forcibly medicating me.
Reasons for striking
“I have been held in Guantánamo without charge or trial since March 2002. In February 2007 I was cleared for release by the military’s Administrative Review Boards established under President Bush. I was cleared again in 2009 by a multi-agency task force set up by President Obama, which my lawyer tells me included representatives of the US Department of Justice, State, Defense and the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security.
“I have informed my lawyers and the medical staff at Guantánamo that I will remain on hunger strike until the authorities stop desecrating the Qur’an and end our imprisonment. We should not be here.
“I am also striking to protest the restrictions that Congress has put in place that are preventing people to be transferred. I want restrictions removed and people to be set free and then I will stop my hunger strike.
“A doctor tried to convince me to break the hunger strike. I told her I would strike until either the guards stopped insulting our Qur’ans, or they took our Qur’ans from us so that they would be safe from the guards’ abuse. I also said that the President must fulfill his promise to end the nightmare that is Guantánamo Bay. The doctor replied that this was none of her business.
The experience of hunger-striking and force-feeding
“I have not decided to do this lightly. Each day of the strike is an ordeal. The process of being force fed hurts a great deal, particularly because I had a prior surgery in my nose so my nerves there are very sensitive. It is both painful and risky for me to be force fed.
“Medical staff also seem to make matters worse, either through inexperience or indifference. Sometimes they botch putting the tube in and tears stream down my cheek. They used to use my left nostril, but it stopped working, I suppose because it swelled. They can’t even get the tube in that way anymore. I asked for a size 8 tube, and they refused, saying, ‘You don’t like size 10? Eat!’ So they use my right nostril instead. Because of the surgery in my nose, they also can’t pass the tube straight down to the throat. I ask them to work it around, and they ask, ‘around what?’ I say ‘more to the left’ and it gets around. Some of the nurses refuse to do this.
“When they force feed us in Camp 6 they shackle our feet with metal chains and shackle our arms and hands to our stomach with metal chains. Then they put us in a force feeding chair and tie us with belts. Sometimes the nurses try to measure my blood pressure and temperature but they cannot because I am shackled. The medical staff is scared because they don’t know how to measure the vitals with all the shackling and cannot complain.
“I have tried to tell the medical staff that force-feeding me is a violation of their medical ethics, but they say that the order comes from the guards and they have no control.
“Some of the newer medical staff they sent down because the strike is so widespread are afraid during feedings, and it shows. I do not think I am intimidating as I weigh at most 120 pounds now; it seems to be because they have never been asked to do anything like this before. When one of the new nurses — she was perhaps 40 — started to feed me, I saw that her hands were shaking. I asked her whether it was her first time ever to force-feed someone. ‘Yes, it is,’ she responded.
“When the food comes in, I feel like throwing up. Some of the prisoners just can’t digest it and they vomit.
“I have thrown up myself sometimes because of the feeding. Especially at bedtime, I feel ill and start to throw up. I try to do it when they will not notice — because if they see me they will put me in the chair and feed me again. That is worse than throwing up. When they feed us, they shut off the water in the cell for one hour afterwards. If they see somebody throwing up within that hour, they repeat the feeding.
“In another incident, a male nurse passed the tube through my nose, and then started to pump the feeder. The food rushed into my stomach too quickly and I started to feel like I wanted to throw up. I asked him to reduce the speed. He not only refused, but tried to turn it up. It was already as high as it could go. I felt this was a terrible way for a supposed ‘health professional’ to behave. After he finished his work, he quickly pulled the tube from my nose and left the room.
“I have never heard of Reglan. But I don’t believe they would tell me if they were going to use it on me, or that it had side effects.
“I have tried to ask what goes in the food. In the beginning, they put the medicine with the food and I asked the corpsman: ‘Does the food include medicine?’ He said: ‘It’s been included all along.’ He said it was Vitamin B and a stomach laxative. This apparently goes to all the brothers. They don’t tell me about drugs to stop people throwing up. Sometimes I saw them mix medicine with the food. They will not tell you anything.
“Because Reglan is one of the suggested drugs to ‘to enhance gastric motility’ in hunger strikers in the Guantánamo force-feeding Standard Operating Procedure, this made me concerned Reglan was being administered by force.”
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here – or here for the US).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
On Facebook, yesterday, after I posted the version of this article that was on the “Close Guantanamo” site, Tenzin Angmo wrote:
Better morals than any group of preachers.
Thanks, Tenzin. Good to hear from you. Thanks also to everyone who has liked and shared this.
Please sign up to join us at “Close Guantanamo,” if you haven’t already. Just an email address is required to add your voice to those calling for the closure of the prison, and to receive email updates 3-4 times a month: http://www.closeguantanamo.org/Join-Us
Tenzin Angmo wrote:
As my 4th of July protest, I refuse to take part in any celebration while these crimes against innocent people at Guantanamo continue.
Thanks, Tom. I wish millions of your fellow countrymen and women felt the same!
[…] a Yemeni whose op-ed in the New York Times in April drew attention to the hunger strike, and Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who lived in the UK before his capture. The film also includes testimony from Nabil […]
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