“When Will My Organs Fail? When Will My Heart Stop?”: Guantánamo Hunger Striker Khalid Qassim Fears Death Under Trump’s New Policy

17.10.17

Guantanamo prisoner Khalid Qassim (aka Qasim), in a photo from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.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.

 

It’s eleven days since prisoners at Guantánamo, represented by the human rights organization Reprieve, reminded a forgetful world of the never-ending injustice of the prison. Ahmed Rabbani, a Pakistani prisoner, and Khalid Qassim (aka Qasim), a Yemeni, both long-term hunger strikers, told their lawyers that, since September 20, “a new Senior Medical Officer (SMO) stopped tube-feeding the strikers, and ended the standard practice of closely monitoring their declining health.”

I wrote about the plight of the hunger strikers — and Donald Trump’s disturbing new policy — in an article last Saturday, but at the time the rest of the world’s mainstream media showed no interest in it. It took another four days for the New York Times to report on the story, and even then Charlie Savage accepted assurances from the US authorities that “an 11-year-old military policy permitting the involuntary feeding of hunger-striking detainees remained in effect,” an assertion that I regard as untrustworthy, because the US military has a long track record of being untrustworthy when it comes to telling the truth about Guantánamo.

Last Thursday, Reprieve followed up on its initial reporting by securing an op-ed in Newsweek by Ahmed Rabbani, entitled, “Dear President Trump, Close Guantánamo Bay and Give Us a Fair Trial”, which I reported here, and on Friday the Guardian gave Khalid Qassim the opportunity to comment. His article, “I am in Guantánamo Bay. The US government is starving me to death,” is cross-posted below, and I hope you have time to read it, and will share it if you find it useful.

In Reprieve’s original press release, they suggested that six men were on a hunger strike, and I confirmed that one was Sharqawi al-Hajj, whose lawyers had publicized his case just last month. Another man who is known to be on a hunger strike — out of the remaining 41 prisoners — is Abdul Salam al-Hela (aka al-Hilal), a Yemeni businessman, whose attorney David Remes told Charlie Savage that he was one of the hunger strikers, and who, yesterday, told the Independent, that al-Hela’s “weight had dropped from 165lbs to 110lbs and that he has been coughing up blood.” He added that al-Hela “had launched his protest after he was refused permission for a second phone call a month to his family in Yemen.”

In addition, I think, based on an email from a reader, that the fifth hunger striker is Ghassan al-Sharbi (aka Abdullah al-Sharbi), who, as his most recent review, on April 18, stated, “has continued to engage in a long-term, nonreligious fast.” The lawyers who spoke to Charlie Savage also told him about a sixth prisoner, identified as a hunger striker by other prisoners, although he “does not have a lawyer,” and it is not known which category of prisoner he is.

The other prisoners, however, are all what is known as “forever prisoners,” held without charge or trial, but given parole-type reviews — Periodic Review Boards — every few years to ascertain whether they are still regarded as a threat. This process was established under President Obama in 2013, and while it was useful for enabling the Obama administration to release low-level and insignificant prisoners who had previously been regarded — with too much caution, frankly — as ”too dangerous to release,” it has left those still regarded as some sort of a threat in a terrible kind of limbo, in which it is understandable that hunger striking can be seen as the only way of protesting against the injustice of imprisonment without charge or trial, and, it would seem, without end.

As I have previously pointed out, force-feeding prisoners is an abomination, and has accurately been assessed by experts as a form of torture, but Trump’s new position — of letting hunger striking prisoners starve to death — is also unacceptable, and it is completely valid for the prisoners to demand, as they are doing, that they be charged or released. To help with this, please sign Reprieve’s petition to Donald Trump, calling for independent medical experts to be allowed to assess the hunger strikers, and for Guantánamo to be closed, which currently has over 18,000 signatures, and please also consider joining Reprieve’s founder, Clive Stafford Smith, and over 400 supporters to date, who are fasting in solidarity with the prisoners.

Before posting Khalid Qassim’s Guardian article, I’d like briefly to look at his case. At the time of his Periodic Review Board, in February 2015, it was clear that he was nothing more than a foot soldier for the Taliban, but had responded to his long and unjust imprisonment by “committ[ing] hundreds of infractions” against the guard force, prompting Clive Stafford Smith to tell his PRB, “Let’s face it, his disciplinary record is not good.” However, as the Guardian reported at the time, he also “said Qasim should be transferred because other Guantánamo Bay prisoners with disciplinary problems had been resettled without becoming security threats to the United States.”

In the transcript of Qassim’s PRB, Clive Stafford Smith elaborated further on his client’s case, stating:

I’m convinced from my experience with Khalid that he’ll adjust well to release. And there are various factors that lead me to this conclusion. First, it is my assessment that Khalid is not interested in extremism. I have never got the slightest indication in the last year that he is. Second, I’ve got to say, at the risk of embarrassing him, he is an intelligent young man. I was struck by this when I first received his letter [introducing himself to Clive]. And I’d really appreciate it if you’d actually look at this letter because it’s astounding really. He’s taught himself English here in Guantanamo. And what really struck me about this letter is the amazing copperplate handwriting that he uses, you know, that he’s taught himself here. I’ve got to say it’s better than any handwriting I’ll ever have. And I have shown this letter to my six-year-old son Wilford to try and teach him to write better; because frankly, Khalid’s writing in English is a lot better than Wilf’s.

Khalid has taught himself English since he was in U.S. custody. And this is both an illustration of his hunger for learning, and his willingness to make the most of his situation. It is perhaps also one of the reasons that he’s been viewed as noncompliant and been noncompliant, because he’s taught himself English and become the person who is the interlocutor in some of the cellblocks.

When I meet with Khalid, we have these interesting discussions about the state of the world. And you know, he has a very open and inquiring mind. His main requests of many frankly are less about legal things and more about materials to help him learn. For example, we provided him with a complete dictionary of English pronunciations in rather tiny print so that he could improve his diction.

Below is Khalid Qassim’s article:

I am in Guantánamo Bay. The US government is starving me to death
By Khalid Qassim, the Guardian, October 13, 2017

I am in so much pain that I know it can’t go on much longer. As each night comes, I wonder if I will wake up in the morning writes Khalid Qassim.

I haven’t had food in my stomach for 23 days. The 20 September was the day they told us they would no longer feed us. They have decided to leave us to waste away and die instead.

I am in so much pain every minute that I know it can’t go on much longer. Now as each night comes, I wonder if I will wake up in the morning. When will my organs fail? When will my heart stop? I am slowly slipping away and no one notices.

There is a man who is in charge of all the medical staff. I don’t know his name but they call him the senior medical officer. He was the one who called us all in and told us they would stop feeding us. As soon as he took over I knew he was bad news and now he has decided to end our lives.

I started hunger strike because I was so frustrated, so depressed – I have been locked up here so far from my family for 15 years. I have never been charged with a crime and I have never been allowed to prove my innocence. Yet I am still here. And now Donald Trump says that none of us – the 26 “forever” prisoners who have apparently committed no crime, but merit no trial – will ever leave here so long as he is in charge.

Some will say I brought the pain on myself. But how can that be? I did not ask to be brought here. I did not do anything that justified being kidnapped and hauled half way around the world. It is true that there have been times when I thought I would be better off dead. This was the only peaceful way I thought I could protest. What I really want, for me and for the other men here, is justice. Certainly, I never wanted to die in the pain I’m now in.

They have stopped feeding us before but this time feels different. They want to stop the hunger strike by any means. They keep repeating: if you lose part of your body that is your choice; if you are damaged, that is your choice. They intend to leave us until we lose a kidney or another organ. They will wait until we are damaged. Maybe until we are too damaged to live.

Just over a week ago, on 29 September, I collapsed and they called a “code yellow” – that’s what they call it. I’ve seen it before but this is the first time the code has been for me. Still I got no treatment. Still they continue to starve me. I can’t walk anymore. My hip joints are swollen and it is too painful. I am so tired and so weak.

The worst thing is, the medical staff aren’t recording anything. They don’t check how close I may be to death. The nurses are writing nothing down. They don’t reply when I ask them if they’ve recorded my missed meals. They should be there to care, but they don’t care.

These days have been the most terrifying of my 15 years in this place. We are used to torture here but this is so slow and so cruel. The people who are supposed to look after us are hurting us. I have been reduced to pleading for my life. I am asking for anyone out there to talk about what’s going on here. To ask why Trump is letting us slowly die. I don’t have many days left.

These words were dictated by Khalid Qassim from Guantánamo Bay to his attorney, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, of the human rights organization Reprieve. Khalid Qassim has been held at Guantánamo Bay for 15 years. He has never been charged with a crime or had the chance to prove his innocence at trial. Khalid comes from a small town in Yemen and travelled to Afghanistan in search of work in 2000. He was detained by Afghan police and handed over the US forces in a case of mistaken identity. It emerged later that the US offered large financial incentives to local law enforcement to hand over Arab prisoners for interrogation.

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).

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, the full military commissions 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.

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, cross-posting, with my own commentary, an article by Guantanamo hunger striker Khalid Qassim, which was published in the Guardian, revealing how he fears for his life under Donald Trump’s new policy – allowing long-term hunger strikers to die. But Khalid doesn’t want to die. As he says, “I started hunger strike because I was so frustrated, so depressed – I have been locked up here so far from my family for 15 years. I have never been charged with a crime and I have never been allowed to prove my innocence. Yet I am still here. And now Donald Trump says that none of us – the 26 ‘forever’ prisoners who have apparently committed no crime, but merit no trial – will ever leave here so long as he is in charge.” Please read it, and please share it if you find this current situation intolerable.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s a disturbing new tweet from Clive Stafford Smith: https://twitter.com/CliveSSmith/status/920390328057847808

    ‘Disturbing news from Khalid Qassim; mistreatment worse. More news to come, more pleadings to file.”

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Khalid has also produced art in Guantanamo – see this page from the exhibition ‘Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay’ – currently showing in the President’s Gallery at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York (until Jan. 26): https://www.artfromguantanamo.com/khalid-qasim-1/

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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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