For First Time, US Judge Orders Government to Release Videotapes of Force-Feeding to Guantánamo Prisoner’s Lawyers

22.5.14

Yesterday, for the first time in Guantánamo’s long and ignoble history, a federal court judge ordered the US government to hand over videotapes recording a prisoner being forcibly dragged from his cell by a riot team, and then being force-fed.

The prisoner in question, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, is a Syrian, cleared for release from the prison in 2009 by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, along with 74 other men who are still held. In despair at ever being released, because of Congressional obstructions and President Obama’s unwillingness to bypass Congress, even though a waiver in the legislation allowed him to do so, Mr. Dhiab was one of the many prisoners who embarked on a prison-wide hunger strike last year, and was soon subjected to force-feeding, a horribly painful process condemned by medical professionals.

Last Friday, Abu Wa’el Dhiab secured a momentous victory when District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the government to stop force-feeding him and to stop him being subjected to “forcible cell extractions,” and also ordered the government to preserve all videotapes recording his “forcible cell extractions” and his force-feeding. The motion on behalf of Abu Wa’el Dhiab only came about when one of his lawyers, Jon B. Eisenberg, found out through persistent questioning of a Justice Department official that the videotapes existed, and, with his fellow lawyers at the legal action charity Reprieve, submitted an emergency motion.

Last Friday, Judge Kessler scheduled another hearing for yesterday (May 21) to give the government  time to say when it would be able to turn over Mr. Dhiab’s medical records and the videotapes.

As the Guardian described it, the US government “conceded that there are 34 videos showing the forcible feeding” of Abu Wa’el Dhiab,” adding, “The analogue video cassettes are part of a broader set of 136 videos showing Dhiab being forcibly removed from his cell by Guantánamo Bay guards bringing the hunger striker to be fed enterally.”

Judge Kessler ordered these 34 videotapes to be handed over, although, as the Guardian noted, she “did not order the tapes to be released to the public.” Instead, the government “will have to transfer the classified tapes from Guantánamo to a secured facility in the Washington D.C. area for his lawyers to view, after faces and other identifying information of Guantánamo personnel and facilities are censored.”

The Guardian added that the tapes of Dhiab’s feedings “are said to range between 15 minutes to half an hour each, suggesting the government possesses at least eight hours of footage of just one detainee enteral feeding.” They are also “said to be in a microcassette format,” and, as the Guardian described it, Jon B. Eisenberg “said they would have to be digitized for viewing, owing to formatting difficulties impacting declassified playback.” Eisenberg quipped, “Pretend it’s 1955, that’s where the technology is.”

Judge Kessler also ordered the government to produce Mr. Dhiab’s medical records. As Reprieve noted, “These records should allow the court to make a proper assessment of the traumatic impact of force-feeding on Mr. Dhiab’s declining health.” Importantly, as Reprieve also noted, “For the time being, the existing injunction remains in place,” meaning that Mr. Dhiab cannot be force-fed or subjected to “forcible cell extractions.”

No wonder, then, that two other hunger strikers, Emad Hassan and Ahmad Rabbani, submitted motions this week asking for the videotapes of their force-feeding to be preserved.

It is to be hoped that many more prisoners now embark on this course of action, and that the embarrassment of dealing with the repercussions of these disgraceful policies at Guantánamo persuades President Obama to take decisive action — in the first instance, by releasing the men who are cleared for release, like Mr. Dhiab, as soon as possible.

In his case, the irony is that he is one of six prisoners who have already been offered a new home in Uruguay by President Mujica, an offer that President Obama should accept without further delay.

Responding to Judge Kessler’s ruling yesterday, Cori Crider, Reprieve’s Strategic Director, said, “Mr. Dhiab has been cleared for transfer from Guantánamo Bay for several years now, and yet promises of his imminent release have come to nothing, so it is not surprising that he has gone on a peaceful hunger strike in desperation. It is very encouraging that the rule of law is finally coming to Guantánamo, so that perhaps Mr. Dhiab’s situation can be resolved. While the photographic evidence of his abuse is secret, it will at least allow the judge to see what is happening to him.”

Further revelations about Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s treatment – in April, and threats following last Friday’s ruling

The day before Judge Kessler ordered the government to hand over the videotapes to Mr. Dhiab’s lawyers, Cori Crider and Cortney Busch of Reprieve submitted two additional declarations providing further information about their client.

Cortney Busch, Reprieve’s Operations Manager, received her declassified notes from a visit on April 30, when she found Mr. Dhiab “very thin” and  looking unwell. He told her that he had resumed his hunger strike “because of the delay in releasing him.”

Mr. Dhiab also explained how the staff responsible for force-feeding the prisoners were involved in what he described as “a ‘vicious’ policy of permitting the detainees’ weight to yo-yo: over-feeding prisoners to the point of discomfort, suddenly ceasing the feeding, then resuming feedings if a prisoner loses consciousness on the block.” This, he noted accurately, was “even more unpleasant and dangerous than a consistent regime of feedings.”

Mr. Dhiab also explained how Ahmad Rabbani, one of the two men who followed his success in court last Friday with their own court submissions this week, had been the victim of “very disturbing force-feeding practices,” through which he “had developed a bad chest infection and had been vomiting blood.”

In the second submission, Cori Crider, Reprieve’s Strategic Director, explained how, in a call with Mr. Dhiab following his court victory last Friday, he stated that, within hours of the ruling, he had been threatened with a “forcible cell extraction” by  an army sergeant, and further explained that he was fearful of the riot squad that administers the FCEs (the ERF team, generally understood to mean the “Emergency Response Force” or the “Emergency Reaction Force,” although the prisoners refer to it as the “Extreme Reaction Force”).

Crucially, Mr. Dhiab also explained how the videotapes of the “forcible cell extractions and the force-feeding may well not include the worst treatment, as the filming is selective rather than consistent.

In conclusion, Cori Crider noted that he “made a simple plea for good sense,” stating, “All I want is to get out of this place. For how much longer will I have to be in this situation? The suffering, the torture, being away from my kids and my family? How much longer will I be here?” He added, “Five years ago, Obama said he was going to close this place and let the cleared people out. Meanwhile I have lost much of my life here, as well as my loved ones. Why are they doing this to us? I have no problem with America. For how long are they going to make me suffer?”

These are powerful words on the eve of the global day of action tomorrow (May 23), when, throughout the US and around the world, people will be calling for the closure of Guantánamo. To ask President Obama to release Abu Wa’el Dhiab and all the other cleared prisoners (77 in total), please call the White House on 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414. You can also submit a comment online.

Cortney Busch’s declaration, May 20, 2014

1. I am the Operations Manager and a security-cleared paralegal with legal action charity Reprieve. I have been visiting Reprieve’s clients in Guantánamo since August 2010.

2. I make this declaration based on my most recent visit with the Petitioner on 30 April 2014; I received the cleared notes from that visit today.

3. The following description is drawn directly from this visit. Quotations represent my best reconstruction of what Mr. Dhiab said, although they are not verbatim.

4. Mr. Dhiab was very thin when I saw him and looked unwell. He stated that he had not been out for recreation or even a shower for nearly seven months.

5. He reported that he had resumed hunger striking because of the delay in releasing him. He had suspended his strike for a brief period when it appeared to him that release might be imminent, but said he found the continuing limbo too difficult to bear: “All I want to know is my situation. Am I going to leave or not?” He mentioned previous instances when he had been told he would be released and, in the event, was not.

6. Mr. Dhiab is suffering considerable health complications apparently as a result of his previous long-term under striking and force-feeding, to include serious pain in his kidneys and blood in his urine.

7. He also states that the ‘Forcible Cell Extraction’ (FCE) team have continued to assault him for ‘movements’ without reason or provocation, and continued to do so even after the temporary suspension of his hunger strike.

8. He also reported what he described as a ‘vicious’ policy of permitting the detainees’ weight to yo-yo: over-feeding prisoners to the point of discomfort, suddenly ceasing the feeding, then resuming feedings if a prisoner loses consciousness on the block. This, he says, is even more unpleasant and dangerous than a consistent regime of feedings.

Other prisoners

9. Mr. Dhiab also mentioned very disturbing force-feeding practices for another petitioner, Ahmed Rabbani. Mr. Dhiab reported that the day before our visit (that is, on April 29, 2014) another detainee, Ahmed Rabbani (ISN 1461) started to bleed immediately when JTF-GTMO medical staff tried to intubate him, and that they tried to do so three times but were ultimately unsuccessful. This led to extremely painful swelling in his nose and throat. As a result of the feeding tube being incorrectly inserted, Mr. Rabbani had developed a bad chest infection and had been vomiting blood over the previous few days.

10. Mr. Dhiab said Mr. Rabbani was regularly being ‘FCE’d’ to be force-fed, and that last Sunday he was vomiting blood. he believes this will have been caught on camera because Mr. Rabbani had vomited blood on himself as the FCE team came to take him to the force feeding chair. Mr. Rabbani then lost consciousness.

11. He compared the current situation facing hunger strikers unfavourably with some aspects of feeding during the Bush administration. Under Bush, he remembered, if you bled during the force-feeding, the process would typically be suspended for three days and then resumed. He also mentioned that one of the doctors at JTF-GTMO brought some sort of ‘form’ for Mr. Rabbani for his signature. He did not know the precise language of the form Mr. Rabbani was asked to sign, but the import of it was, in essence, “we will not force-feed you if you refuse, but if you die you release us of responsibility.” Mr. Dhiab did not know if Mr. Rabbani signed the form.

Cori Crider’s declaration, May 20, 2014

1. This is a supplemental declaration regarding my call with Petitioner on May 19, 2014. Quotations represent my best reconstruction of what the client said but are not verbatim. In the compressed time available I have been unable to confirm every detail of the following account with Petitioner, but I believe these notes to be an accurate reflection of our call.

Resumption of strike and threatened force-feeding

2. Mr. Dhiab has resumed hunger striking. He said that last week between Tuesday and Thursday (May 13-15, 2014), JTF-GTMO medical staff — both doctors and nurses — approached him in his cell and said that if he did not begin to consume nutrients he would once again be force-fed.

3. He described great pain, saying “I could barely sleep for the pain in my kidneys.”

4. Medical staff also told him that, if he refused to eat, the ‘Forcible Cell Extraction’ (FCE) team would be deployed to take him to feedings.

5. He said one of the nurses was very explicit about the consequences of refusing nutrition: “She told me you have one of two options. Either you eat, or we are going to send you to force-feeding through the FCE.” Mr. Dhiab did not know her rank, but indicated the nurse was an African-American woman of average height, working the night shift last week.

6. On Friday, he said the medical staff did not approach him.

Threatened Forcible Cell Extraction on Friday

7. Petitioner observed that there has recently been overuse of the FCE team: “Now they have started to FCE a lot of people. They seem to be hauling people from their cells for any minor reason. One such trivial reason would be, for example, to inspect the room.”

8. Petitioner indicated he had not been moved by the FCE team since Friday. But he added that on Friday night, after the final prayer of the day but before midnight, an army sergeant came to his cell to harass and intimidate him about a possible FCE.

9. Petitioner recounted the following exchange with the sergeant:

The sergeant came to my cell and asked “Why are you refusing to eat? Do you wanna eat by the FCE?”
“I don’t care,” I said.
He said “Okay, see you during the FCE time.”
“Are you from the ERF team?” I asked.
“I am in charge of the team,” he said.

10. Petitioner also indicated that this individual was ‘working’ with the FCE team that evening and would not have come to his cell as part of the ordinary block police patrol or some other routine visit. Petitioner could discern no other purpose to the sergeant’s visit to his cell than to deliver this threat.

11. Petitioner estimates that this man was between 37 and 40, African- American, tall and of medium build. “I have seen him before, and usually we have a good relationship,” he said. When I asked whether he was then surprised that this person had seemingly made a special effort to approach and harass him, he said he was not, and that sad to say, “people change on you from one day to the next here.”

12. Petitioner was very intimidated by this soldier’s threat to use the team, largely because of past experience:

The ERF team hurt you all the time. I especially remember they badly hurt my rib in the past — once in 2009, and another time this year. I have had great pain in both the left and right sides of my chest because of this. It also seems like every time they ERF me and give me a blood test they find blood in my urine. I have severe pain in my lower back/thigh and also in my neck, I believe all from the ERF. I have continuous pain in the head.

“After the torture I have been through many times,” he said, “I have sometimes wished to die because of them.”

Videos

13. Petitioner described the videotaping of FCEs as incomplete and manipulated by Respondents.

14. “They video you when they force you onto the chair and when they pull you off the chair,” he said, “but they do not always do it during feedings.”

15. He said that on several occasions he has requested for the camera to be switched on, to no avail: “When they torture me on the chair, I tell them ‘you should videotape this,’ but at that point they refuse to run the tape. Then, when I start to resist because I am in so much pain, they turn the camera on.”

16. He has particularly tried to persuade them to film during especially painful intubation sessions:

When they [the FCE team] push me in the chair, they then hold each of my limb: one on each arm, one on each leg, and another on the head. Sometimes the way the MP holds the head chokes me, and with all the nerves in the nose the tube passing the nose is like torture. Then, especially when the MP is holding the neck, when they try to force the tube through the throat it often catches and they cannot push it through. At times like these, I ask them to videotape. And they refuse.

17. Then, he said, once the pain has reached a point where he cannot tolerate it and begins to move in response, filming typically starts:

But then, of course, the pain makes you move around. I move my head when they poke me with the tube. I can’t help it. It hurts too much. Then they hold my head, and it only gets worse. After that I start to resist because I have severe pain in my throat. In this moment the head ERF guy shouts ‘DON’T RESIST! DON’T RESIST!’ And then they start taping.

The same thing happens at the end of the feeding: when they move me off the chair and they put pressure on my back and kidneys, I tell them ‘I have pain! I am suffering!’ So after a point, to relieve the suffering, I try to resist, and again they shout ‘Don’t resist!’ and again they start the tape. I don’t want to fight, but I am in such pain.

Many times I have said to them “you are not dealing with a stone, you are dealing with a human being. Why not deal with me like a human being, not a block?”

If I wanted to resist them from the start, I would have resisted when they entered my cell, when I was not chained, not later, when I am just in incredible pain and can only think of doing anything to stop it.

18. He also tries to persuade the FCE team to stop hurting him first:

I try to tell them about my pain before I resist — of course I hope they will avoid hurting me. I tell them they are putting pressure on my back, my kidney and my neck and I am suffering. Several times I have tried to tell them I was in pain but they just kept doing it, and after a point I am in such pain I have no choice but to resist.

19. In general Petitioner was emphatic that, however bad the footage of his FCEs and force-feedings ultimately appears, the unfilmed periods are in truth far worse:

From the time they enter the room to the time they get me off the chair to the time they chain me to the chair, anyone should be smart enough to recognize that there are periods with no videotaping. Why is this?

Sometimes the MPs block the camera so that all you see is not me, suffering, but the soldiers blocking the camera with their bodies.

Other really painful things will not be caught on camera. Many times in the chair they squeeze my leg. The camera can’t really show their squeezing of the leg. When I scream from pain, I start to move, and they say ‘he’s going to resist’, and they start to yell ‘STOP RESISTING! STOP RESISTING!’

When the soldiers touch me I tell them I have a damaged rib. The camera will not capture the pressure on my rib that makes me scream and move. They purposely make you feel pain. When I feel pain I shift, and when I move, they say ‘you are resisting’, and the whole ordeal begins again. Many times when I warn them not to put pressure on my rib or my kidney they only do it more.

When I complain they say ‘we are protecting your life, we are protecting your health’. What kind of concern about my life and health is this, if they put me through such pain I am unable to sleep? I am peacefully demonstrating. Why are you torturing me? I did not resist you to begin with.

20. “I feel as if I die several times a day,” he added.

21. Towards the end of the call he made a simple plea for good sense:

All I want is to get out of this place. For how much longer will I have to be in this situation? The suffering, the torture, being away from my kids and my family? How much longer will I be here?

Five years ago, Obama said he was going to close this place and let the cleared people out. Meanwhile I have lost much of my life here, as well as my loved ones. Why are they doing this to us? I have no problem with America. For how long are they going to make me suffer?

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 six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “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.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

15 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Yes! Yesterday District Judge Gladys Kessler confirmed that, for the first time in #Guantanamo’s history, the government must hand over videos of the force-feeding of a prisoner – Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian cleared for release in 2009 but still held. Now President Obama needs to do the right thing, and release him in Uruguay, where President Mujica has already offered to take him in. Do it now!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Meena B Sharma wrote:

    Finally after all this time..

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s great news, Meena. What is worth noting is that the videotapes won’t be made public, and in the article – via the court submissions I reproduce, from Cori Crider and Cortney Busch of Reprieve – Abu Wa’el Dhiab explains that the worst parts of the force-feeding have probably not been recorded. However, the important thing is that Judge Kessler has started holding the government to account, thanks to Reprieve and Jon B. Eisenberg, and this will hopefully oblige the Obama administration to stop being so complacent about the force-feeding of prisoners cleared for release – and to respond by releasing them, starting with Abu Wa’el Dhiab being put on a plane to Uruguay tomorrow with the five other men that President Mujica wants to offer new homes to.

    It’s the global day of action on Guantanamo tomorrow (Friday May 23), and what better way to mark it than to call the White House on 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 and ask President Obama to release Abu Wa’el Dhiab and the 76 other cleared prisoners immediately.

    For the global day of action, see: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2014/05/12/close-guantanamo-take-part-in-the-global-day-of-action-on-may-23-2014/
    And: http://www.witnesstorture.org/events/
    For President Mujica’s offer, see: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2014/05/19/uruguays-president-mujica-confirms-offer-of-new-home-for-six-guantanamo-prisoners/
    You can also submit a comment to the White House online: http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    At last.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Pauline. Yes, it’s significant that a good judge has finally found a way to pierce the generally law-defying wall surrounding Guantanamo. This will undoubtedly put pressure on the administration, and should lead to action. We need to make sure we push the message tomorrow – and afterwards, of course – that prisoners the US no longer wants to hold – as decided by a high-level presidential task force over four years ago- must be freed. No more excuses are acceptable. 57 of the 77 men cleared for release are Yemenis, but they’re not being sent home because of fears about the security situation in Yemen. What about the fears of what not releasing them says about the US, which tells them they can go home and then continues holding them – possibly forever?

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Charmaine Dolan wrote:

    Good news for a change, well hope it brings further good news like the closing down of that place!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Charmaine. Yes, we need this to shame the administration into releasing people, moving actively and noticeably towards the closure of the prison. Obama needs to do a lot before the mid-terms in November, in case the balance of power shifts in the Republicans’ favor once more.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    After I posted this, I also sent out the latest newsletter for the “Close Guantanamo” campaign, which not only covered this story, but also provided encouragement for supporters to take part in today’s global day of action on Guantanamo. The newsletter is here: http://us4.campaign-archive2.com/?u=c0748d3f311618789d2b32209&id=5290fd1746

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Holly Marie wrote:

    Quit blaming President Obama:
    Why Guantanamo remains open: http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/why-guantanamo-remains-open

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Holly Marie wrote:

    It’d be alot more effective if people complained to the right place, namely the republicans in the House…Obama tried to put an end to the authorization today and House republicans voted against it.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Holly, it’s simply not true to say, as a blanket comment, that President Obama’s hands are tied by Republicans. When it comes to closing Guantanamo – which involves moving some prisoners to the mainland so that the facility in Cuba can be shut down – it is true that Republicans (and some Democrats) have included passages in the NDAA preventing prisoners from being moved to the mainland for any reason, and the link you provided shows that lawmakers are still unwilling to drop their opposition. President Obama could issue an executive order and get around this, but I understand that he’s unwilling to do so. However, when it comes to releasing prisoners, the power lies with President Obama.
    It is true that Congress had raised obstacles to the release of prisoners, requiring the administration to certify that, if released, they would be unable to engage in terrorism. This requirement was so onerous that it meant that just five prisoners were released between October 2010 and July 2013.
    Throughout this period, a waiver in the legislation, specifically introduced by high-ranking Democrats, allowed Obama to bypass Congress if he regarded it as being “in the national security interests of the United States,” but he chose not to use it, and again, I understand why, even if I don’t condone his unwillingness to act. However, in December, lawmakers were persuaded to ease the restrictions on releasing prisoners, so he has no more excuses. Remember, 12 men have been released since August, but there are 77 other cleared prisoners who need to be freed – 57 are Yemenis, and there are 20 others, but it is simply not acceptable to claim that President Obama is powerless. The power to release these men lies with him, and he needs to act NOW. Put Abu Wa’el Dhiab on a plane to Uruguay with five other men THIS AFTERNOON. Put Shaker Aamer on a plane back to London THIS AFTERNOON. Send a plane load of Yemenis back to Sana’a THIS AFTERNOON.

  12. Ron says...

    Regrettably, Judge Kessler lifted the stay today. Mr. Dhiab’s suffering is unlikely to be noticed as Americans celebrate Memorial Day with flags and cookouts.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Ron. I agree that it’s disappointing, although I understand Judge Kessler’s dilemma. I do, however, hope enough has been done to persuade President Obama that the best course of action is to release Mr. Dhiab.

  14. Jim says...

    How disappointing that the judge has undone the one ruling that provided some hope; I should have known it was too good to last. The conversion of the force-feeding videotapes to a digital format will probably be conveniently delayed as well.

    Also, I liked your well-reasoned response to the disingenuous “don’t blame Obama” argument (it’s a bit frustrating to see that argument still posted here, even if the current news items giving it ammunition show that the media still pays attention to Guantanamo occasionally). As I wrote in my message to the White House for today’s Day of Action, it’s a shame that a President who’s so fond of using executive orders to bypass Congress hasn’t done that to end any of Guantanamo’s injustices.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jim. Very good to hear from you. I understand Judge Kessler’s dilemma. Now I just hope some people in the administration understand how unacceptable it is to continue force-feeding prisoners who are supposed to have been released.

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