Ahmed Zuhair, Long-Term Former Hunger Striker at Guantánamo, Speaks

15.9.13

Last week I published an article, “Meet the Guantánamo Prisoner Who Wants to be Prosecuted Rather than Rot in Legal Limbo,” about Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian prisoner, following up on an article written by Jess Bravin for the Wall Street Journal and published in July. As I explained at the time, “Throughout the spring and summer, while the prison-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo raged, taking up most of my attention … I missed some other developments, which I intend to revisit over the next few weeks.”

Following up on that promise, this article revisits an Associated Press article by Ben Fox, published in June, which featured an interview with Ahmed Zuhair, a Saudi citizen and former sheep merchant released from Guantánamo in June 2009, whose story I covered in detail three months before his release, in an article entitled, “Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent Home.” This recent article was based on a phone call with Zuhair, who is now 47 years old, for which Fox was accompanied by Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York (CUNY), who represents other men still held, including Shaker Aamer, the last British resident, and Abdelhadi Faraj, a Syrian prisoner.

At the time of his release, Zuhair was one of three hunger strikers who had been on a hunger strike since the summer of 2005, when as many as 200 prisoners engaged in prison-wide hunger strike, and had not given up when the first restraint chairs arrived at the prison in January 2006. Fox noted that he now weighs 190 pounds, but that, in December 2005, he weighed just 108 pounds, and, prior to his release, just 115 pounds.

Alarmingly, his fellow hunger strikers, Abdul Rahman Shalabi and Tarek Baada (aka Tariq Ba’Odah), have not been released, and are still on a hunger strike. They are two of the dozens of prisoners force-fed as part of the prison-wide hunger strike that began in February, as the men still held concluded that they had been abandoned by all three branches of the US government, even though 86 of the 166 men still held at that time had been cleared for release in January 2010 by an inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force. 18 men are still being force-fed, but at the height of the hunger strike, in July, 46 men in total were being force-fed.

The hunger strike, the horrendous nature of force-feeding and the reasons why the men felt such despair that they embarked on a hunger strike in the first place are in danger of being forgotten again, despite attracting the attention of the world’s media throughout the spring and summer. This is largely because of President Obama’s promise, in May, to resume releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, although to date just two men have been released as a result of that promise, and there is no indication that the necessary moves on the president’s part — releasing all of the 84 other cleared prisoners — are forthcoming.

As a result, it seems clear to me that Ahmed Zuhair’s recollections are still relevant, in part because, as Ben Fox explained in his article, “[t]he men undergoing forced-feeding aren’t permitted to speak to journalists,” although a few, of course, managed to speak to their lawyers, and secured mainstream media in the spring and summer — most noticeably Samir Moqbel, a Yemeni, whose account was published as an influential op-ed in the New York Times.

Like an unknown number of the hunger striking prisoners this year, Zuhair resisted the authorities’ attempts to force-feed him, which, as Fox explained, led to the repeated use of  a “forced cell extraction team” to “move him when he refused to walk on his own to where striking detainees were fed.” Zuhair also told Fox that “his nasal passages and back are permanently damaged from the way he was strapped down and fed through a nasogastric tube,” and Fox also noted that, at one point, “he and fellow prisoners smeared themselves with their own feces for five days to keep guards at bay and protest rough treatment.”

In his own words, Zuhair said, “Not once did the thought occur to me to stop my hunger strike. Not once.” He added that, although he didn’t receive much news about Guantánamo these days, “the world should not be surprised that prisoners are back on strike,” as Fox put it. “The men there today are going through the same experience and they are suffering just as much, and so they probably will not stop either,” Zuhair added.

Officials at Guantánamo refuse to use the term “force-feeding,” preferring instead to talk of “enteral feeding.” Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a Guantánamo spokesman, told Fox that the authorities believe that there are “adequate safeguards” in place to make the force-feeding “as pain-free and comfortable as possible,” He added, “It’s not done to inflict pain and it’s not done as punishment. It’s done to preserve life.”

Zuhair, however, was unconvinced. He called the restraint chair the “torture chair” and “said he was left tied down for hours at a time, ostensibly so the liquid nutrient drink Ensure could be digested.” That corresponds with accounts made by prisoners force-fed during the latest hunger strike.

He also noted, in a sworn statement submitted to a US court by Ramzi Kassem, “During each force-feeding, my nose bleeds. The pain from each force-feeding is so excruciating that I am unable to sleep at night because of the pain in my throat.” He also explained that, at one point, the authorities arranged for his mother to call the prison, who “urged him to drop the hunger strike.” Zuhair said, “My family did not know what I was going through at Guantánamo — the humiliation, the torture, the solitary confinement.”

Although Fox noted that it was “difficult to confirm the accounts of either prisoners or military officials,” because journalists “are not allowed to watch the feeding process or interview” the prisoners, Pardiss Kebriaei, an attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, told him that, during her most recent visit, “several of the men had trouble concentrating, which she attributed in part to being kept isolated in solid-walled cells for most of the day.”

She also told him that one of CCR’s clients, Sabry Mohammed (also known as Sabry Mohammed al-Qurashi), a Yemeni prisoner and one of the 84 men cleared for release, had lost more than 60 pounds in weight. “Sabry Mohammed was a healthy young man before the strike,” she noted in an email. “It was startling this time to see how much he has changed physically.”

Despite the protestations of the authorities regarding their treatment of the hunger strikers, medical professionals refuse to accept their arguments. Fox’s article followed an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, which I covered here, in which three medical professors wrote, “Military physicians should refuse to participate in any act that unambiguously violates medical ethics,” they write, adding, “Military physicians who refuse to follow orders that violate medical ethics should be actively and strongly supported … Guantánamo has been described as a ‘legal black hole’. As it increasingly also becomes a medical ethics free zone, we believe it’s time for the medical profession to take constructive political action.”

Before this editorial, the American Medical Association (AMA) had written a letter to the Pentagon stating that “force feeding of detainees violates core ethical values of the medical profession,” and shortly after this editorial was published, 153 doctors from the US and around the world condemned the force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantánamo in a letter to President Obama that was published in the Lancet. In July, the British Medical Association (BMA) followed suit, writing to President Obama “urging him to immediately suspend the role of doctors and nurses in force-feeding prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay and to launch an inquiry into how the ‘unjustifiable’ practice ha[d] been allowed to develop.”

Dr. David L. Katz, working at the Yale University School of Medicine, told Fox that there were “risks to prolonged enteral feeding, including the possibility of getting liquid in the lungs and or damaging the nasal passages, particularly when the person is uncooperative.” He also said that “[t]he effects of prolonged use of liquid nutrition instead of regular food are not really known.”

Fox also noted that Zuhair was held at Guantánamo for seven years, “where he faced an evolving collection of allegations that he had ties to Islamic extremists, all of which he denied.” He was initially seized by the Pakistanis, and Ramzi Kassem told Fox he was “tortured into confessing to having met with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, even though he had never been to that country.”

Kassem also told Fox hat he had sought to have a judge rule on Zuhair’s habeas corpus petition. “We just wanted to go to trial and have the hearing so a judge could rule on whether Ahmed’s detention was legal or not,” he said. However, just after a judge set a court date, for June 2009, “the US put Zuhair on a plane without warning and sent him home,” making him “one of the last prisoners allowed to leave before Congress put up roadblocks” to the release of prisoners.

He then went through the Saudi government’s rehabilitation program, but cannot find work. He told Fox that his stomach and his back were “in constant pain” from the force-feeding, which surely indicates that other men still held will have long-term medical problems as a result of their involvement in hunger strikes, including the prison-wide strike this year, but he saved his last words for the men still held, stating, “I think about the men who are at Guantánamo and I wonder about America’s humanity. I ask myself how much longer this will go on.”

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).

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One Response

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for liking and sharing, my friends. I worry that we are back to Square One with Guantanamo – again – struggling to build a body of outrage as the men themselves waste away, deprived of the justice that America claims to believe in.

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