Trump’s Disturbing New Guantánamo Policy: Allowing Hunger Strikers to Starve to Death

7.10.17

A hallucinatory image of force-feeding at Guantanamo by Sami al-Haj, as reproduced by British artist Lewis Peake in 2008, based on a drawing by Sami that the Pentagon censors refused to allow the public to see. The drawing, one of a series of five, was commissioned by Sami's lawyers at Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

Disturbing news from Guantánamo, via the human rights organization Reprieve. Yesterday, in a press release, Reprieve explained that the authorities at Guantánamo have stopped force-feeding hunger-striking prisoners, a practice that has existed for ten years, because of a new Trump administration policy.”

Hunger strikers have existed at Guantánamo almost since the prison opened, and in 2013 a prison-wide hunger strike drew worldwide condemnation for President Obama’s inaction in moving towards closing the prison, as he had promised on his second day in office. Inconvenienced by Republican lawmakers, who had raised considerable obstacles to the release of prisoners, Obama had chosen not to challenge the Republicans, and had, instead, done nothing. The hunger strike changed all that, but towards the end of 2013, after the release of prisoners resumed, the authorities at Guantánamo stopped reporting the numbers of men who were on a hunger strike.

According to Reprieve, since that time, some prisoners have continued with their hunger strikes, “peacefully protesting a lack of charges or a trial,” although very little has been heard about them, with just one example reported in recent years — that of Sharqawi al-Hajj, a Yemeni held without charge or trial at Guantánamo since September 2004, whose case I reported on last month, when he weighed just 104 pounds, and when, after he refused to submit to being force-fed, he “lost consciousness and required emergency hospitalization.”

Explaining the force-feeding policy at the prison, Reprieve stated that “[t]he ten-year practice had been to force feed them when they have lost one fifth of their body weight.” However, Reprieve were told that, on September 20, “a new Senior Medical Officer (SMO) stopped tube-feeding the strikers, and ended the standard practice of closely monitoring their declining health.”

The numbers remain classified, but Reprieve suggests that it includes six “low value” prisoners; in other words, six of the 26 men who are not facing trials (ten men are facing or have had trials) and who have not been approved for release (five others are in this category).

Reprieve also explained that one of the men on a hunger strike is Ahmed Rabbani, a Pakistani prisoner, who has been held — without charge or trial — since September 2002. He has been on a hunger strike since 2013, “reportedly weighs just 95 pounds, and is suffering internal bleeding.”

Another prisoner on a hunger strike is Khalid Qassim (aka Qasim), also held without charge or trial since 2002, and also on a hunger strike since 2013. He has had no food whatsoever since September 20, and, two weeks later, told his lawyers at Reprieve, “I can’t walk. My joints, my hips hurt me too much.” Reprieve explained that his blood sugar count has dropped to 55 — and websites relating to blood sugar levels suggest that a level of 50 mg/dL (milligrams per decilitre) is “dangerously low,” and that those at that level should “seek medical attention.”

Khalid Qassim also stated, “Before the medical authorities at Guantánamo used to say we watch your health, meals or your weight, your health is important, if you’re in a bad condition, force feeding is required. After the 20th, they don’t say that.”

Reprieve also explained that the prisoners told them that “the new policy, which is combined with offering them trays of food, is designed to force them to end their strike.”

Ahmed Rabbani said, “I don’t want to die, but after four years of peaceful protest I am hardly going to stop because they tell me to. I will definitely stop when President Trump frees the prisoners who have been cleared, and allows everyone else a fair trial.”

In response to the news, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, a lawyer with Reprieve who represents prisoners at Guantánamo, said, “This new Trump policy should not be implemented in secret. Not only will the detainees die as a result of their peaceful protest, but their deaths will spark still more anger if the military coerces them by manipulating their medical treatment. The Trump Administration must urgently allow independent medics to examine these detainees, before it’s too late.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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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44 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Disturbing news from Guantanamo, via Reprieve, who reveal that Trump has instigated a new policy at the prison – refusing to force-feed prisoners on a hunger strike. Force-feeding is an unpleasant process, but for ten years the authorities have engaged in it and, by doing so, have refused to let prisoners die. Trump’s new policy is supposed to drive prisoners to abandon their hunger strikes, but what if they don’t? One prisoner, Khalid Qassim, held without charge or trial since 2002, told his lawyers, “I can’t walk. My joints, my hips hurt me too much.” Another, Ahmed Rabbani, said, “I don’t want to die, but after four years of peaceful protest I am hardly going to stop because they tell me to. I will definitely stop when President Trump frees the prisoners who have been cleared, and allows everyone else a fair trial.” Please share this story.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Dessie Harris wrote:

    Andy very disturbing news, force feeding is not unpleasant process, it is a very painful process…..how very sad…

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, force-feeding has been described as torture, Dessie, and I’ve covered that angle many times over the years, but, in contrast, deliberately refusing to feed prisoners, a policy that Trump has just initiated, means that prisoners may die – something that, until now, the US authorities wanted to avoid because of its negative PR repercussions.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    He’s a monster. I can’t believe this.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    There’s no easy way of dealing with hunger strikers for the authorities, Natalia. If they force feed, they’re accused of torture; if they don’t, prisoners will die. The third option, of course, is the one they don’t want to hear about – as Ahmed Rabbani says, “I will definitely stop when President Trump frees the prisoners who have been cleared, and allows everyone else a fair trial.”
    But I can imagine Trump thinking that, if they won’t eat, they should be allowed to die – something that simple and callous.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Andy I know, he won’t do that…if I considered Obama less evil and he didn’t freed all the cleared men…Trump won’t either. I guess you’re right…they should 😔
    I’m translating your article to Spanish right now

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Natalia. Getting the word out as much as possible is definitely useful!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Andy, as always, thank you for your work.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Natalia. Your support is greatly appreciated.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Reprieve, for bringing this to our attention. Very disturbing.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    How can he let these men die?

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I’d imagine there’ll be a court challenge, Natalia, which may put a focus on the administration that they don’t want. But the big problem – the sad truth – is that it doesn’t seem there are enough of us anymore to shame the administration into responding to Ahmed Rabbani’s request – to be freed, if approved for release, or given a trial.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Andy, you mean less people are fighting for Guantanamo’s detainees?

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    I mean that less ordinary people care, Natalia, sadly. Maybe they’ve moved onto other topics that deserve scrutiny under Trump, which I certainly understand, but the end result is that the Guantanamo prisoners appear to me to be more friendless than they’ve been before.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Noel Rooney wrote:

    I wish I could say this is Trump’s Bobby Sands moment, but I don’t think it is; whatever about worldwide opinion, the US is just not focused on this issue and these men could easily die practically unnoticed in the USA; a series of personal tragedies, and a collective travesty of justice (compounded as it is built on a travesty of justice) but off the radar unless someone influential in the USA is brave enough to take this on; one would say Obama, but he was part of this problem, and it would feel ironic in the worst way if he scored liberal points from a tragedy he helped to create and maintain.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Noel. Yes, I fear you may be right to say, “these men could easily die practically unnoticed in the USA.” We’ll have to see how serious it gets. If lives really are at risk, the liberal media will be on it, and there’s still some small connection between liberal outrage and some parts of Trump’s dysfunctional government that might see force-feeding reinstalled. But after 16 years, that’s not much of a solution, is it, for men crying out for something resembling justice?

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    I know, as I have mentioned before, it seems no one here in Mexico cares for them. “It’s not relevant to our problems” Amnesty Internactional México told me.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    I think no nations really care substantially about the men still held, Natalia, so it makes it difficult for other countries to get involved either. I said for years that the US should just release Shaker Aamer if they wanted the UK to shut up. And when Shaker was freed, that was basically was happened. The biggest foreign critic suddenly didn’t have a pressing case anymore.

  19. Tom says...

    What Trump and the other politicians don’t seem to understand (or just don’t care about) is that PTSD is incurable. If you’ve been tortured, that pain (physical, visual, mental) never goes away. Ever. You then have to constantly deal with protecting yourself from violently triggering things. If you let your guard down, that lapse could literally kill you. I struggle with this every day.

    Keep going with your work, Andy.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom. Good to hear from you, and thanks for the words of support for my work.
    I suspect that your analysis of Trump and other politicians’ incomprehension of the effects of PTSD is that they simply don’t care. I rather suspect that they don’t really care much about PTSD when it comes to US military veterans either.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Neo Lotus wrote:

    Andy The media here is not liberal. It’s corporate. Also, I don’t think the prisoners will get much notice. The unfortunate corollary to allowing them to die, is that they will eventually run out of them and then U.S. will need to restock. Whether that gets any notice or not is debatable.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Neo. By the liberal media, I mean in particular the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post, who have a history of, at times, being critical of the government’s position on Guantanamo, and reflecting unease amongst the liberal intelligentsia. I certainly didn’t mean that there’s anything liberal about the papers’ corporate ownership, and I don’t think that liberal qualms mean much at all – especially to a boor like Trump – but Guantanamo’s history does show that every now and then there are ripples of dissent that manage to get noticed – like 2013’s prison-wide hunger strike, for example.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Sven Wraight wrote:

    Trump will change his mind when the publicity gets too great, though I fear that’ll be after permanent harm has been done.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, those are my hopes and fears, too, Sven. Good to hear from you.

  25. Thomas says...

    It’s good that force feeding-painful torture-has stopped. At least Trump did one thing right. If it were up to me I would let out every Gitmo prisoner except the handful that helped do 9/11 and a few directly taken on the battlefield, on the sole condition that they didn’t sue anyone.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Thomas. Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that force-feeding is horrible, and can be described as torture, but I can also see how it has been difficult for the authorities to allow prisoners on a hunger strike to die – and not just, cynically, because it’s bad PR. The best solution would undoubtedly be for Trump to release everyone who isn’t intended to face a trial – and also to finally get those trials underway by moving them to federal court.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Have any media outlets reported on this yet? This is going to create a huge sh*t storm

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Amazingly, no one in the mainstream media has decided it’s newsworthy yet, David. I’m genuinely quite appalled by that.

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    I decided to re-post this on Facebook, and wrote:

    With incredulity, I note that it is nearly four days since Reprieve sent out a press release revealing that, on Sept. 20, Donald Trump ordered Guantanamo staff to no longer force-feed hunger strikers – thereby allowing them to die if they don’t give up on their hunger strikes – and yet no mainstream media outlet has yet reported on it. This is what I published on Saturday, and I’m sending it out again in case anyone missed it at the time.

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    Still nothing about this in the mainstream media – just the first stories about the news that the Supreme Court has refused to consider the case of Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, who was originally convicted in a military commission trial in 2008, but then had most of that conviction overturned. On matters relating to terrorism, it appears that the United States no longer has a functioning Supreme Court, as there has been no engagement with issues relating to Guantanamo since Boumediene v. Bush in June 2008: https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2017-10-10/us-top-court-leaves-guantanamo-detainees-conviction-intact

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    Dr. David Nicholl, who’s been campaigning to close Guantanamo for even longer than I have, is recruiting medical professionals to sign a petition decrying Trump’s policy change regarding hunger strikers at Guantanamo. His petition states, “There has been a recent change in the management of hunger strikers in Guantanamo Bay, allegedly denying them access to medical treatment. We have repeatedly asking for independent access to healthcare for some years and have grave concerns regarding this recent change in policy under the Trump administration. We plan on submitting this letter to either a medical journal or national newspaper in the coming days.”
    Please note: to sign it, you must be a doctor!
    See: https://www.gopetition.com/petitions/letter-re-the-2017-guantanamo-hunger-strike-and-the-new-change-in-policy.html

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Update here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2017/10/11/new-york-times-finally-reports-on-trumps-policy-of-letting-guantanamo-hunger-strikers-die-rest-of-mainstream-media-still-silent/

    As I described it on Facebook:

    Following up on my exclusive report on Friday about Donald Trump’s new policy regarding Guantanamo hunger strikers – refusing to force-feed them, and letting them starve to death – here’s my analysis of the first mainstream media outlet to cover the story – the New York Times, which, today, wrote about it, but accepted a claim by the military that “an 11-year-old military policy permitting the involuntary feeding of hunger-striking detainees remained in effect,” contradicting what the prisoners have told their lawyers. Why should we believe the military, when the hunger striking prisoners themselves are explaining that no one has force-fed them for weeks, and that they are being left to die?

  33. Andy Worthington says...

    I was very pleased to be reminded of Lewis Peake’s excellent illustrations about Guantanamo and force-feeding, based on descriptions of drawings by Sami al-Haj, which were banned by the Pentagon. Two of them are reproduced at the top of this article, and in my follow-up article, and they – and three others – were originally published here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2008/04/13/sami-al-haj-the-banned-torture-pictures-of-a-journalist-in-guantanamo/
    They were also included in a Guardian article in May 2008, which is online, but without the illustrations: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2008/may/05/television.guantanamo
    See Lewis’s website here: http://www.illustration-art.co.uk

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    UPDATE – here’s a petition to Donald Trump, initiated by Reprieve. Please sign and share! https://act.reprieve.org.uk/page/s/close-guantanamo

  35. Michael McNulty says...

    Guantanamo Bay will be the last defining image of the United States. It’s epitaph. “Here died America”. And little of the good that went before it will be remembered.

  36. L Garou says...

    Riiiiight. And just when, pray tell, was the last time a hunger striker starved to death?

  37. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your comment, Michael. Very powerful.

  38. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, no one has, because the military has been force-feeding them. That’s the whole point.

  39. PJ London says...

    One could I suppose use Google or other search engine and get hundreds of responses.
    Hunger striker died

    1981 Irish hunger strike – Wikipedia
    The 1981 Irish hunger strike was the culmination of a five-year … prisoners had starved themselves to … for each man who died on the hunger strike, …

    Starved: Inmate hunger strike leads to death in Kentucky …
    Starved inmate: Embry refused 35 of … Starved: Inmate hunger strike leads to death in Kentucky … after inmate James Kenneth Embry went on a hunger strike and died …

    Belfast Prisoners End Hunger Strike That Left 10 Dead …
    As one young man after another starved himself to death, … The other men who died in the hunger strike were Francis Hughes, Ramond McCreesh, …

  40. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, PJ.

  41. wehaveseenthismovieb4 says...

    What are you talking about? force feeding prisoners of war during a hunger strike is a war crime. By international law POW’s who choose to exercise their right of protest against their captivity have the right to starve themselves to death; to draw attention to their confinement. Force feeding them keeps them alive and mutes their protest and shame of their captors. I’m sorry but this article reads like it was written by a member of the idiot son’s criminal crew

  42. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re entitled to your opinion, of course, and I appreciate you stating the facts regarding the treatment of hunger strikers, but these men are not prisoners of war, and, in addition, as a human being I find it hard to accept the reality of allowing someone to starve to death when they’re protesting the conditions of their imprisonment. The solution would be for a responsible government to accept that it has no right to hold them endlessly, but that’s not happening.

  43. stock says...

    Given option 3, release them.

    What then? What do you think they would do after we release them? Go live a peaceful life somewhere?

    It’s a horrible choice, and horrible situation, but if the truth is that taking the high moral ground would create more terrorism on USA, then at what point does practicality rule?

  44. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, stock. The thing is, no one’s proposing rashly releasing anyone. Under Obama, prisoners were not freed without their release being unanimously approved by representatives of the major government departments and the intelligence agencies, and that’s how it would remain if Donald Trump were to realise that his total ban on releasing prisoners is as unjust as his Muslim ban.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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