“I Had Trouble Sleeping,” Lawyer Says After Viewing Guantánamo Force-Feeding Videos

24.6.14

On the weekend of June 14/15, as I explained in an article last week, lawyers for Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian prisoner at Guantánamo who is on a hunger strike and being force-fed, began watching videos of their client’s force-feeding and “forcible cell extractions” — when prisoners are violently removed from their cells by a riot squad — which a US judge, District Judge Gladys Kessler, had ordered to be released to the lawyers a month ago. It is important to note that, previously, no lawyer for the prisoners has ever been allowed to view videotapes of force-feeding or violent cell extractions.

Prior to viewing the videos — at a “secure facility” run by the Pentagon in Virginia, where lawyers have to go to view any classified documentation related to their clients — Cori Crider of Reprieve, the legal action charity whose lawyers represent Dhiab, along with Jon B. Eisenberg in the US, described how she expected the content of the tapes “to be upsetting.”

After viewing them, Crider delivered a powerful statement about how disturbing the tapes are. “While I’m not allowed to discuss the contents of these videos, I can say that I had trouble sleeping after viewing them,” she said, adding, “I have no doubt that if President Obama forced himself to watch them, he would release my client tomorrow.”

Alka Pradhan, an attorney with the newly-established Reprieve US, added, “These first-ever glimpses into Guantánamo Bay are extraordinarily disturbing. I challenge the President to look at the mounting evidence and take ownership of the abuse my client is enduring.”

Sadly, there is no evidence that President Obama has any interest in watching the videos, even though Abu Wa’el Dhiab is a prime candidate for release from Guantánamo. The father of four, who is confined to a wheelchair as a result of his deteriorating health after 12 years in US custody, is one of 75 men (out of the remaining 149 prisoners still held) who were cleared for release from the prison in January 2010 by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force but who, unacceptably, are still held. (Three others were cleared for release in recent months by Periodic Review Boards).

Dhiab, who, like a handful of other cleared prisoners, cannot be safely repatriated, could nevertheless be released tomorrow, if President Obama wanted to free him, as President Mujica of Uruguay has offered him a new home, along with five other prisoners who cannot be safely repatriated — three more Syrians, the last Palestinian in the prison, and a Tunisian.

A new twist in the abuse of Abu Wa’el Dhiab

However, instead of releasing Dhiab, President Obama appears content to leave him at Guantánamo, where, as Reprieve noted last Monday (June 16), he is now being prohibited from attending the force-feeding sessions by wheelchair, and is being told that he must walk (which he cannot) or he will be violently extracted from his cell and taken there by the riot squad.

In an affidavit dated June 10, Mohammad Ahmad Ghulam Rabbani, a Pakistani prisoner who is also seeking the release of videotapes recording his force-feeding and “forcible cell extractions,” and whose cell is opposite Dhiab’s, stated that, on June 9:

[T]he Gitmo staff came to Abu Wa’el and asked him if he was going to drink his Ensure [the nutritional drink used in force-feeding]. He pointed out that he had accepted his normal food. The staff said that was not enough so he would have to take his Ensure. Abu Wa’el was offended by this and said he was not going to agree to this. So the staff said he would be force fed by FCE ["forcible cell extraction"]. The staff person said he could agree to “walk.” Abu Wa’el pointed out that he needed a wheelchair. The staff said to him no, it was “walk or FCE,” so he was FCE’d.

Rabbani also explained that the authorities have ceased videotaping “forcible cell extractions” since Judge Kessler’s ruling. “As of last Wednesday, June 4th, 2014, the JTF-GTMO authorities have changed their rules and they no longer videotape FCE activities,” he stated, adding, “This is [a] direct response to the judge’s order in Abu Wa’el’s case. It is a great shame as I would always describe loudly for the camera what was being done to me.”

Rabbani also stated:

Yesterday evening, Abu Wa’el was FCE’d in a particularly harsh manner. The FCE team beat him so badly he had blood in his faeces. I heard him vomiting for much of the night.

Abu Wa’el tries to drink water, but it is hard for him. It was made easier by the herbal remedy his family sent him. However that had been confiscated from him for a time, until Sunday. He had it one day but when he was FCE’d last night it was taken from him again.

In response to this disturbing news, Reprieve filed an emergency application for a temporary restraining order.

Judge Kessler orders the release of more videotapes

In the meantime, Dhiab’s lawyers had another court appointment, on June 18, where Judge Kessler “ordered the Obama Administration to pass attorneys four more videotapes depicting the Forced Cell Extraction (FCE) of a disabled hunger-striker at Guantánamo Bay,” as Reprieve described it, adding, “The latest tapes, recorded on May 29-30 this year, are thought to depict a new FCE team handling Syrian prisoner Abu Wa-el Dhiab especially roughly following a court order which temporarily halted his force-feeding. They are in addition to the 28 tapes viewed over the weekend by lawyers from legal non-profit Reprieve, which is representing Mr Dhiab. Of these, 18 have been filed to the court in support of Mr Dhiab’s case.”

Cori Crider responded to Judge Kessler’s ruling by stating, “Bit by bit, tape by tape, this case is starting to reveal the ugly reality of Guantánamo. The only question is how long the President, who has the power to release this cleared man, will continue to look away and leave him to endure this pointless torment.”

The media gets involved

On June 20, 16 media organizations got involved in the case. In a motion submitted to the court, they sought to unseal video evidence of the force-feeding and “forcible cell extractions,” which, as Reprieve noted, “remain classified and have only been seen by Reprieve lawyers.”

The 16 organizations are: The Hearst Corporation, ABC, Inc., The Associated Press, Bloomberg L.P., CBS Broadcasting, Inc., The Contently Foundation, Dow Jones & Company, Inc., First Look Media, Inc., Guardian US, The McClatchy Company, National Public Radio, Inc., The New York Times Company, Reuters, Tribune Publishing Company, LLC, USA TODAY, and The Washington Post.

Cori Crider responded to the media’s motion by stating, “It’s very welcome that the US media is defending Americans’ right to know what is being done in their name at Guantánamo, and a scandal that the Obama administration apparently wants to keep the truth from them. Mr. Dhiab and the rest of my clients have never received a trial — most have been cleared for release for years — yet their peaceful protest is being brutally repressed. The government keeps implying that the force-feeding tapes contain only uncontroversial material — so they ought to put up, and produce a public version of this footage, or shut up.”

Lawyers seek to interview Col. Bogdan, Guantánamo’s contentious warden, plus medical personnel

On the evening of June 20, Reprieve and Jon Eisenberg, plus Eric Lewis of Lewis Baach PLLC, filed a motion asking Judge Kessler to allow them to question under oath Col. John Bogdan, the warden of Guantánamo, who is believed to be responsible for the decision to prevent Abu Wa’el Dhiab from attending force-feeding in his wheelchair. They also “request the sworn testimony of Guantánamo’s current and former head doctors about Mr. Dhiab’s need for a wheelchair, as well as current abusive and medically unsound force-feeding practices at the prison,” as Reprieve explained in a press release.

Reprieve also noted, correctly, that “Col. Bogdan is responsible for a particularly brutal regime over the past two years at Guantánamo,” pointing out that, “In response to the mass hunger strike of 2013, he rolled out a series of harsh punishments designed to ‘break’ the peaceful protest of scores of cleared men who despair of ever being released.” Bogdan also features prominently in a CBS news report from Guantánamo last fall, in which Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, shouted out from his cell, and directly exposed the prisoners’ plight to US audiences.

Reprieve also noted that medical records for Dhiab, which were made public last Wednesday, suggested that the decision to deprive Dhiab of his wheelchair “was entirely punitive.” They cited a note from a nurse, dated April 25, 2014, which warned him that his “dis[ciplinary] status with guard force is affecting his ability to have a wheelchair.”

As the motion was submitted, Cori Crider explained, “If you take a disabled man’s wheelchair away, you ought to have to answer for it under oath. Col. Bogdan’s new ‘no wheelchairs’ policy reveals at best a callous indifference to suffering, and at worst an abuse of the total power he exercises over prisoners in his care. This is the ugly reality of Guantánamo, and it is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Reprieve also noted that a “full hearing on the merits of [Abu Wa'el Dhiab's] force-feeding challenge is expected to be scheduled by Labor Day,” which falls on the first Monday in September. However, it is clear that there will be other legal challenges before then, as Dhiab’s lawyers, with the invaluable support of Judge Kessler, have succeeded in shining a light on the darkness that still prevails at the heart of Guantánamo, whose exposure will, I hope, spur the Obama administration to renewed action in releasing prisoners, despite the manufactured hysteria from Republicans regarding the recent Bowe Bergdahl/Taliban prisoner release.

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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22 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my update of the latest news regarding legal challenges to the force-feeding and violent cell extractions at Guantanamo, and, in particular, the court-ordered release of videotapes showing the abuse, which lawyers for Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian prisoner – wheelchair-bound, cleared for release, on a hunger strike and force-fed – were able to see last weekend.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    It is shocking, because it’s so inhumane.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, exactly, Toia. That’s why I wanted people to have that brief description of Abu Wa’el – “wheelchair-bound, cleared for release, on a hunger strike and force-fed.” Every day I’d like to hear that he’s being sent to a new home in Uruguay, but the news never arrives, just as every day I hope to hear that Shaker Aamer has been returned to his family in London, which also never happens …

  4. Catzmaw says...

    The problem isn’t Obama. He’s repeatedly said he wants to close Guantanamo. However, he is forbidden by provisions written into the NDAA (and passed by a veto-proof Congressional majority) from expending federal funds either to close the facility or to transfer the inmates to any other facility anywhere else. Look at what happened when he released the Taliban detainees for Bergdahl. It caused a political firestorm which still has not settled down, and accusations that he’d broken the law and exceeded his authority as Commander in Chief. He doesn’t need to see the videos to know what he wants to do, but as I said, he’s not the problem.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Catzmaw,
    Yes, I agree that Congress has raised onerous obstacles – and the disgraceful response to the Bergdahl/Taliban prisoner exchange was a new nadir in lawmakers’ behavior. However, President Obama has the authority to bypass Congress if he regards it as being “in the national security interests of the United States” – and if you look at what he has said about Guantanamo, then releasing prisoners already cleared for release is definitely “in the national security interests of the United States.”
    I sympathize with the position he finds himself in, but although Congress has prevented him from closing Guantanamo, lawmakers can’t stop him releasing prisoners if he wants to. And that, ultimately, is what he needs to do.

  6. Jeff Kaye says...

    Col. Bogdan was also responsible for the death of Adnan Latif, in my opinion. As noted in an official Army investigation of Latif’s death — supposedly from suicide — Bogdan received a “high-priority email” from GTMO’s “cultural advisor”, passing along a warning that Latif was going to kill himself. An “analyst” wrote about the threat in a “Force Protection Report.” Guards and medical personnel were reportedly quite concerned about Latif’s state and safety just before he was moved — apparently while suffering pneumonia! — to an isolation cell, where he was found dead the next day. Bogdan claimed he never read the email, but that seems highly unlikely.

    The government thus far hasn’t released a copy of that email to me, solicited via FOIA nearly one year ago, nor to my knowledge, has any news agency or other reporter even asked about it.

    Thanks so much for covering this story, Andy, but thought I’d throw in my two cents about Bogdan, on an aspect of his actions at Guantanamo that usually aren’t ever mentioned.

  7. Jeff Kaye says...

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the added information, Jeff, about Col. Bogdan and Adnan Latif. I had missed your article last year about Bogdan’s particular culpability. It seems to me to be a great shame indeed that he has not been removed from his job and replaced with someone less combative.
    My report on Latif’s last days is here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2013/07/19/exclusive-the-last-days-in-the-life-of-adnan-latif-who-died-in-guantanamo-last-year/

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Sulaiman Abu Jennah wrote:

    ASTAGFERULAH WHAT A DISGRACE

    [Note: Astaghfirullah - the act of seeking forgiveness from God].

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Sulaiman Abu Jennah wrote:

    I DONT LIKE TO GET INVOLVED AS I AM NOT ABLE TO HELP GOD FORGIVE US ALL AMEEN.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, Sulaiman. If I may offer some advice, though, please don’t think you are unable to help. 12 and a half years after the hellhole that is Guantanamo first opened, there is still widespread ignorance about it, even in the Muslim community. Some people think Obama closed it, because he said he would, others don’t realize that over half the men – 78 out of the remaining 149 prisoners – have been cleared for release, 75 in January 2010 by a high-level task force that Obama appointed, and three in recent months through a new review process, the Periodic Review Boards. Just sharing this information can help to educate people, and that education is still sorely needed.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Kim Chi wrote:

    Doesn’t sound pleasant to me anyways.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Kim Chi wrote:

    where is this video. Can we all view it here?

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    The videos have not been released to the public, Kim, only to the lawyers, who have to travel to the Pentagon’s “secure facility” near Washington D.C. to view them. That’s where they have to go to view everything the Pentagon regards as classified or, in this case, sensitive material.
    However, it will be interesting to see what response there is to the motion by 16 media organizations calling for the videos to be publicly released, which I also mentioned in the article. That motion is here: http://www.reprieve.org/uploads/2/6/3/3/26338131/gtmo_force_feeding_press_applicants_motion_to_intervene_and_unseal_videtape_evidence_points_and_authorities_june_20_2014.pdf

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    After my friend Diana Murtaugh Coleman shared this on Facebook, and I thanked her, she wrote:

    Of course, Andy. Thanks for writing this. The work takes a terrible toll on the lawyers. They come to know the men, and clearly find it painful to be so acutely aware of their past and ongoing suffering, and the patent breaches of law and human decency. The system that they are trained to work within, the justice system, is so distorted in these extra-legal spaces. I think of them often, as they make the trips to Guantanamo time and again. So glad you stay the course…a difficult project for you to live with, day in and day out. As a very wise relative of mine, a psychotherapist, reminded me that working on such dark issues means that one must bring in as much light as possible. It’s good to be surrounded by caring people on this journey…it helps tremendously.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Diana, for your empathy and understanding. I don’t get to meet the men in Guantanamo, of course, which makes it slightly easier for me to have some sort of distance, I think, but I don’t underestimate the toll it takes writing and thinking about this incessantly for eight years. It’s why I’ve made room in my life for other things in the last few years – primarily cycling around London taking photos – and why, of course, solidarity with other like-minded people is so important!

  17. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, in my opinion Colonel John Bogdan is not only a disgraceful and dishonorable perjuror, he is a bona fide war criminal. He should be tried in the Hague, because clearly the USA can not be trusted to lay suitable charges on the war criminals within its own ranks.

    Can I encourage your readers to write to their MPs, etc, calling on them to call on their governments to press the USGov to indite Bogdan?

    He commanded a secret Guantanamo like prison in Africa before his Guantanamo assignment, one that held captives taken when the USA helped neighbouring countries on their excursions into lawless Somalia. I wonder how many captives died under his care, there?

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. I’d actually like pressure to be put on the Obama administration and the Pentagon to replace Col. Bogdan. I’d forgotten about his previous, extremely dubious role in charge of a secretive prison in Somalia – and also in Iraq. Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First wrote about Bogdan for the Huffington Post in December 2013:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daphne-eviatar/guantanamo-prison-command_b_4467419.html

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Diana Dougherty Miller wrote:

    How have we reached this low? I don’t have the words to express the horror I feel. God bless and strengthen those who are working to stop this torture.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Diana, for taking an interest and for responding as all decent people should.

  21. Jim says...

    If Judge Kessler herself were to view the force-feeding videos, I wonder whether she’d change her opinion on allowing the force-feeding of Abu Wa’el Dhiab (which she did after imposing the brief stay last month) — sadly, I doubt it.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the thoughts, Jim. Yes, it seemed Judge Kessler was worried that Abu Wa’el Dhiab would die if he wasn’t force-fed, and that she couldn’t take the responsibility for that possible outcome – which I understand if you put yourself in her shoes.
    However, I still recall how, in a ruling last summer, she reminded the president that he has the power to deal with prisoners being force-fed, and in Dhiab’s case the answer is obvious: President Obama should release him to Uruguay.
    See: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2013/07/10/judge-recognizes-force-feeding-as-torture-but-tells-guantanamo-prisoner-only-president-obama-can-deal-with-the-hunger-strike/

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