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.
Last month, the court of appeals in Washington D.C. (the D.C. Circuit Court) delivered an important ruling regarding Guantánamo prisoners’ right to challenge their force-feeding, and, more generally, other aspects of their detention. The force-feeding is the authorities’ response to prisoners undertaking long-term hunger strikes — or, as Jason Leopold discovered on March 11 through a FOIA request, what is now being referred to by the authorities as “long-term non-religious fasts.”
The court overturned rulings in the District Court last summer, in which two judges — one reluctantly, one less so — turned down the prisoners’ request for them to stop their force-feeding because of a precedent relating to Guantánamo, dating back to 2009.
As Dorothy J. Samuels explained in a column in the New York Times on March 11, revisiting that ruling:
In 2009, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia badly undermined the rule of law by dismissing a civil case brought by former Guantánamo detainees never charged with any offense while in custody. That decision (which the Supreme Court declined to review) largely echoed the Obama administration’s arguments that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other senior military officers could not be held responsible for violating the plaintiffs’ rights because the ill-treatment fell within the scope of their employment, and that it was not yet “clearly established” during the 2002-2004 period covered by the case that torture was illegal.
Highlighting the absurdity of that ruling, Samuels added:
Not only were the plaintiffs … never charged with any wrongdoing while in custody, but some of them were found by the government’s then-operative review process not to be enemy combatants. How could the abusive treatment of those individuals, including use of solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, exposure to cold, shackling, and mocking of religious practices, be considered within the scope of government employment? The simple answer is that it can’t, notwithstanding the government’s best efforts to make the whole problem go away.
As a result of last month’s appeals court ruling, a Yemeni prisoner, Emad Hassan (who I wrote about recently here), launched a historic legal challenge on March 11, becoming “the first Guantánamo Bay prisoner to have his claims of abuse at the military base considered by a US court of law,” as his lawyers at Reprieve put it.
Described, accurately, as being “gravely ill,” Emad Hassan, who was cleared for release in 2009 by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force but is still held (like 75 other men cleared for release by the task force), “has been abusively force-fed more than 5,000 times since 2007 as part of the military’s efforts to break his hunger strike,” as Reprieve also described it, and “suffers from serious internal injuries as a result.”
As Reprieve also described it, the case, Hassan v. Obama, “highlights the increasing brutality of the Guantánamo Bay force-feeding process, which the military has amended step-by-step to make it so painful that only the most courageous peaceful protester can continue. It will be the first case requiring a US judge to review a Guantánamo prisoner’s detailed testimony describing his treatment — and will force the military to respond.”
With the support of two experts — the psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis, a retired Brigadier General and Army medical corps officer with 28 years of active service, and Steven Miles, Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School — Hassan’s legal team argue that the force-feeding practices at Guantánamo “amount to torture,” explaining that, for example, “the speed at which liquid is forced into some prisoners is a form of water torture that is similar to water-boarding.” The lawyers cite “clear evidence that the military practices and protocols have been deliberately altered to cause gratuitous pain and suffering in an effort to coerce the prisoners to renounce their peaceful protest.”
In a recent statement, Emad Hassan said, “All I want is what President Obama promised — my liberty, and fair treatment for others. I have been cleared for five years, and I have been force-fed for seven years. This is not a life worth living, it is a life of constant pain and suffering. While I do not want to die, it is surely my right to protest peacefully without being degraded and abused every day.”
Jon B. Eisenberg, counsel for Emad Hassan in the US, said, “After 12 years of wrongful imprisonment, Emad and his fellow-hunger strikers are protesting peacefully in the only way they can. The punishment inflicted on these desperate men is nothing short of torture, and it is about time that it is brought to light and judged by a court of law.”
Eric Lewis, a partner at Lewis Baach PLLC and the chair of the newly-established Reprieve US, said, “This case marks an historic step in the long battle to bring basic rights to the legal black hole at Guantánamo Bay. For over a decade, abused prisoners at the US military base have been denied any effective legal mechanism to challenge their treatment. This case calls upon US judges to restore the most basic rights, medical standards and human dignity to these men at Guantánamo Bay.”
In a report for Al-Jazeera America, the journalist Massoud Hayoun spoke to Clive Stafford Smith, the founder and director of Reprieve, who told him, “This is the first time that any court will compare what the prisoners are saying about the torturous methods with what the military is saying.”
In a declaration accompanying the court submission, Stafford Smith stated how, in a meeting at Guantánamo last month, Hassan spoke about how, in early 2006, the authorities described the restraint chairs brought to Guantánamo to break the prison-wide hunger strike that had been raging from the summer of 2005 onwards as the “torture chairs.” He described being force-fed through large tubes, which were shoved into and pulled out of his nostrils before and after each feeding.
Alarmingly, as Stafford Smith also explained:
[O]n the Torture Chair the men were also given an anti-constipation drug which would cause ether to defecate on themselves while still being fed. They were not given clean clothes. Mr. Hassan says he finds it difficult to talk about this even today, several years later. “I could not think someone who called himself human did this to me,” he said to me on February 5, 2014.
Emad Hassan’s first hunger strike lasted from June 2005 February 2006, and he began hunger striking again in 2007, a process that has continued unbroken since that time. As Stafford Smith described it, he “has suffered with chronic pancreatitis and multiple hospitalizations stemming from the force feeding techniques.” He added that “his illness has included attacks brought on by the use of the nutritional supplement Jevity, which contains high levels of fat — a trigger for pancreatitis.”
Hassan also told his lawyer that “the doctors at Guantánamo do not protect his health or interests,” and that their “only object appears to be to find ways to make the detainees bend to the military’s will.” He added, “They systematically make the force feeding process gratuitously painful, by forcing the liquid down the men’s noses faster, by speeding up the flow of liquid, by using a bigger tube, and by pulling the 110 centimetre tube out of his nostril after every feed and then forcing it back in.”
Hassan also told Stafford Smith that, in response to nausea brought on by the forced feeding process, the authorities forced him — and other hunger strikers — to take Reglan, a drug that he said “made him feel crazy.” In the Standard Operating Procedure for dealing with hunger strikers, which was obtained last year through FOIA legislation by Jason Leopold for Al-Jazeera, the use of Reglan was recommended during force-feeding, even though, as Reprieve explained in a press release to accompany the submission of the first legal challenge to the force-feeding last June, “Medical studies into the drug have determined that prolonged use of Reglan also is linked to a high rate of tardive dyskinesia (TD), a potentially irreversible and disfiguring disorder characterized by involuntary movements of the face, tongue, or extremities.”
While medicated on Reglan, Stafford Smith wrote, Hassan “would sit on his bed, legs folded, thinking that he was talking to the nurse, but he actually found that he was talking to himself.”
Stafford Smith also noted that the last time he met Hassan, who is 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 119 pounds before his capture, he weighed just 85 pounds and was in “very bad” health. This was also his weight in December 2005, as I explained in 2009 in a report based on an analysis of height and weight records, and it is, of course, an alarmingly low body weight for a full-grown man. If a photo was available, Emad Hassan would resemble one of the survivors of the Holocaust.
In the submission to the court, Emad Hassan’s legal term explained that their client “wishes to make clear that he is not seeking an injunction to permit him to continue his hunger strike until death. Rather, he is seeking a constitutional protocol that ensures he is not force-fed prematurely and is not subjected to methods of force-feeding that cause unnecessary pain and suffering.”
Because this is a a preliminary injunction, it “puts time schedules in place that are quite short — around 20 days normally,” Stafford Smith told Al-Jazeera, meaning that a decision may be made by the end of the month. In the meantime, the force-feeding of Emad Hassan, and the 17 other hunger strikers currently being force-fed, continues, even though, as Clive Stafford Smith accurately described it, the prison at Guantánamo Bay has become a “festering wound of human rights violations.”
I hope the judges recognize this, and act accordingly.
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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When I posted a link on Facebook to the version of this article published on “Close Guantanamo,” Peter B. Collins wrote:
Gotta get the Orwellian lingo right, Andy: hunger strikes are now called “long-term, non-religious fasts”
Yes, I saw that, Peter, and mentioned it in the opening paragraph of my article. There are no depths to which the authorities will not sink, eh? I still remember in 2003 when suicide attempts were reclassified as “manipulative self injurious behaviour,” and still this disgraceful behavior continues.
Oh, and I should let Jason Leopold know that I credited his discovery!
Peter B. Collins wrote:
and I recall the 3 2006 “suicides” were called “asymmetrical warfare” by an outraged commander…
Yes, “an act of asymmetrical warfare” – that was particularly disgusting, Peter, with three men dead, although every death at Guantanamo has been followed by lies put out by the authorities, almost as though they were revelling in the fact that the dead men couldn’t respond. Really, I have to ask: how is it that this disgusting state of affairs is still ongoing?
Natashja de Wolf wrote:
An appropriate response, Natashja. Sadly, it seems, Jesus, the Son of God of the majority of those in the US government, has abandoned them – or rather, they have abandoned him.
Willy Bach wrote:
How lucky we are that the US voters elected the nice candidate instead of the mentally unstable psychopath – now perhaps torture will end at Guantanamo -
But no, torture gets even more barbaric, as though North Americans just can’t help themselves from hurting others whose lives they regard as worthless. As The Guardian tells us, “giving the prisoners a laxative drug at the same time as feeding, causing them to defecate while in the restraint chair and then leaving them in their own filth.”
Thanks, Willy. I think the specific torture you quote occurred under George W. Bush, during the prison-side hunger strike of 2005-06, but nevertheless it remains true that Obama has done nothing as commander in chief to prevent new forms of abuse from being inflicted on those who embarked on another prison-wide hunger strike last year. I understand that he doesn’t want to micro-manage how the military runs the prison, but he has the power to do much more: to release the men cleared for release by his own inter-agency Guantanamo Review Task Force – 76 men, including Emad Hassan – so they can no longer be force-fed.
Unfortunately, after a promising start last year, with 11 prisoners released, the release of prisoners has once more ground to a halt, and those of us who care are left wondering what kind of leverage we can apply. For my part, I’ll just keep trying to report the stories of men like Emad and hope that people circulate them widely.
Gregory R. Barison wrote:
Torture damages the torturer. None as grievously, of course, as the victim, but severely. We should not ask our military or clandestine personnel to inflict torture on another human being. Such an order is unlawful and should be disobeyed.
Thanks, Gregory. Yes, that’s a very important point. I have only ever seen one reference to a US torturer being so damaged by what he did that he was traumatized and unable to sleep (in a report many years ago by Jane Mayer), but it is undoubtedly more widespread than that. In addition, I believe that the failure to treat torture with the abhorrence it deserves has allowed a barbarism to enter the collective consciousness of the US as a whole, which eats away at the country’s morality like a virus.
Thanks, Ted. Yes, and although that CBS 60 Minutes show was powerful and important because Lesley Stahl’s team recorded Shaker Aamer, the last British resident, shouting from his cell, the rest of the show was carefully managed to avoid outraging viewers, even though they should be outraged, as I reported here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2013/11/20/from-guantanamo-shaker-aamer-says-tell-the-world-the-truth-as-cbs-distorts-the-reality-of-life-at-gitmo/
Jason Leopold wrote:
Belated thank you, Andy!!!!
You’re welcome, Jason. I saw you tweeting about not being credited by someone in particular. Sorry to hear that.
Pamela Lynne Kemp wrote:
Thanks for your dedication to a just and unpopular cause.
You’re welcome, Pamela. Thank you for caring.
We send Emad and the other hunger strikers whatever good tidings we can, amidst their discomfort and suffering; their actions have managed to put GTMO back in the public consciousness, even if only a little; Barack’s slow moving game of “ten little Indians” (now down to “154 detainees,” or better yet, “75 cleared detainees”) hasn’t gotten the same buzz. Ah… but torturing the hunger-strikers– there’s a policy Barack’s government seems to show enthusiasm for. Just think: in another 3 1/2 months or so, it will be Ramadan again, and then my college classmate’s government will, once again, show its tremendous sensitivity and religious tolerance, by only force-feeding hunger strikers at night.
As if more proof were needed that at GTMO, irony is not only dead, it is showing films of its own homicide, I give you this: http://www.dvidshub.net/news/121501/gtmo-celebrates-50-years-civil-rights-america#.UyJnBvldXVs
Thanks, TD. Always great to hear from you. The good news is that I’m told that other legal challenges to the force-feeding program are planned, which will attract more attention.
As for irony “showing films of its own homicide” (how very well put!), it’s hard to beat that particular announcement, isn’t it? Here’s the opening line:
The Black Heritage Organization held their annual Black History Month banquet and residents and military members came together to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, at Guantanamo Bay, Saturday, Feb. 22.
And no one, it seems, thought there was anything untoward about it. Just because foreigners have no rights, let alone civil rights, or what? What about Padilla?
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