150 Doctors Condemn Force-Feeding at Guantánamo; Ahmed Belbacha Describes It As a Painful Ordeal


Over 150 doctors from the US and around the world have condemned the force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantánamo in a letter to President Obama that was published in the Lancet this week. They were following up on a letter to medical professionals at the prison, which 13 prisoners wrote at the end of May, and which I posted here.

In that letter, the prisoners complained about their abuse by doctors — “For those of us being force-fed against our will, the process of having a tube repeatedly forced up our noses and down our throats in order to keep us in a state of semi-starvation is extremely painful and the conditions under which it is done are abusive” — and called for “independent medical professionals” to be allowed into Guantánamo to treat them, and to be given full access to their medical records, in order to determine the best treatment for them.

The letter from 153 doctors echoes these calls, pointing out that the prisoners “do not trust their military doctors,” and that they “have very good reason for this,” as was revealed in the document, “Standard Operating Procedure: Medical management of Detainees on Hunger Strike,” dated March 5, 2013, which was recently obtained through FOIA legislation by my friend and colleague Jason Leopold for Al-Jazeera.

The doctors also describe it as “imperative” for the prisoners “to have access to independent medical examination and advice, as they ask,” and offer “to visit them under appropriate conditions, to assist in their recovery” — and their release, in the cases of the 86 men cleared for release by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in January 2010, if, as they say to the President, “you keep your word (given over 4 years ago), and arrange release of detainees.” They point out additionally that these men will need to become fit to fly before they can be returned to wherever you order your forces to send them.”

In testimony made available to the BBC by Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity whose lawyers represent 15 prisoners still held at Guantánamo, Ahmed Belbacha, one of the 44 men currently being force-fed, gave a first-person account to underline the doctors’ concerns. As the BBC described it, he “said the process ‘hurts a great deal’ and many prisoners vomit.”

Belbacha, an Algerian citizen who lived in the UK for two years and was cleared for release in 2007, has fought attempts to repatriate him forcefully, as he fears persecution from both the government and religious extremists in his homeland.

On the BBC’s Newshour programme, his lawyer reported that he had recently said, “I tell the doctors that force- feeding me is a violation of their medical ethics, but they say that the order comes from the guards and they have no control.”

He added that every day of the hunger strike was “an ordeal,” and also, as the BBC put it, “revealed that he tries to hide it when he vomits because otherwise he would be force-fed again.”

He also said that prisoners “are shackled as they are force-fed and strapped into a feeding chair with their hands tied to their stomachs,” and added that this process “is often made worse by the ‘inexperience or indifference’ of medical staff.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “they botch putting the tube in and tears stream down my cheek. They used to use my left nostril but it stopped working.”

Below is the letter to the Lancet, and, on publication, its first listed signatory, Dr. Frank Arnold, gave the BBC an even more sharply worded condemnation of the force-feeding at Guantánamo, describing it as torture. He said, “The UN and numerous other authoritative bodies have quite explicitly stated that the force-feeding that goes on in Guantánamo is torture. Forcing someone to accept treatment which they’re competent to refuse is an assault.”

Open letter to President Obama on hunger strikers in Guantánamo
The Lancet, Volume 381, Issue 9884, June 22, 2013

Frank Arnold, Vincent Iacopino, Scott Allen, Hernán Reyes, Iain Chalmers, on behalf of 148 other signatories

We write to you as doctors and other health professionals to request that you attend to the open letter from 13 of the hunger strikers in Guantánamo to their military doctors.

It is clear that they do not trust their military doctors. They have very good reason for this, as you should know, from the current protocols of the Joint Task Force Guantánamo, which those doctors are ordered to follow. The orders they receive are ultimately your orders as their Commander-in-Chief. Without trust, safe and acceptable medical care of mentally competent patients is impossible. Since the detainees do not trust their military doctors, they are unlikely to comply with current medical advice.

That makes it imperative for them to have access to independent medical examination and advice, as they ask, and as required by the UN and World Medical Association. [see here and here]

Many of the hunger strikers will be currently unfit for long-distance flights.

We endorse their request, and are prepared to visit them under appropriate conditions, to assist in their recovery and release, and certify when we are confident it is medically safe for them to fly.

If you keep your word (given over 4 years ago), and arrange release of detainees, they will need to become fit to fly before they can be returned to wherever you order your forces to send them.

We have the deepest sympathy for the hunger strikers, the military doctors, and your predicaments. We offer our services to visit, examine and advise them, and to assist in any way that is acceptable to all parties.

We declare that we have no conflicts of interest.

From US:

Dr. Edward Ameen
Dr. Jean Maria Arrigo
Dr. Nancy Arvold
Dr. Deborah Ascheim
Ms. Suzanne Bolwell RN
Dr. Trudy Bond
Dr. J. Wesley Boyd
Dr. Yosef Brody
Dr. Michelle Cartier
Dr. Walter Coppenrath
Dr. Gerard Coste
Dr. Chris Curry
Dr. Tamara Goldberg
Dr. Naomi Granvold
Dr. Sarah Gundle
Ms. Sharon Haight-Carter
Dr. Karen Hanscom
Dr. Michael Jackson
Mr. Todd Jailer
Ms. Sarah Kamens
Ms. Daniela Kantorova
Dr. Craig Katz
Rev. Dr. Carol Kessler
Dr. Sarah Kimball
Dr. Sarah Kureshi
Dr. Ellen Levine
Dr. Silvia Linares
Dr. Constance Liu
Ms. Courtney Massaro
Dr. John May
Mr. Thomas McCoy
Dr. Ayesha Mian
Dr. Ranit Mishori
Dr. Jeffrey Nichols
Dr. Brad Olson
Ms. Sheridan Phillips
Dr. Matthew Pius
Dr. Rishi Rattan
Dr. Barry Roth
Ms. Marion Seymour
Dr. Marc F. Stern
Dr. William Wedin
Dr. Mary White

From clinicians in other countries:

Dr. Mohamed Abdi
Mr. Olufunso Adedeji
Dr. Saeed Ahmad
Dr. Shahzad Alikhan
Dr. Ben Alofs
Dr. Alice Armitage
Prof. Jane Armitage
Dr. Edwin Armitage
Dr. Adam Asghar
Dr. Sarah Lou Bailey
Dr. Anna Barnes
Dr. Noel Baxter
Dr. Miriam Beeks
Mr. Brian Beveridge
Dr. Kathryn Boyd
Dr. Judith Burchardt
Dr. Christopher Burns-Cox
Dr. Robert Chalmers
Dr. Ravi Cheedella
Prof. Rory Collins
Prof. David Colquhoun
Dr. Paul Cooper
Dr. Alison Cran
Dr. Camilla Day
Prof. Carol Dezateux
Dr. Martin Duddy
Dr. Donal Duffin
Dr. Martin Eccles
Mr. David Evans
Prof. Gene Feder
Prof. Richard Fielding
Dr. Peter Fisher
Prof. Alastair Forbes
Ms. Selina Gann
Prof. Ruth Gilbert
Dr. Charmian Goldwyn
Dr. Kate Granger
Prof. Trish Greenhalgh
Prof. Sir Andrew Haines
Mr. David Halpin
Dr. Mark Thomas Heafield
Dr. Bradley Hillier
Mr. David Hirst
Dr. Walter Holland
Dr. Laura Jefferys
Dr. Dan Joyce
Prof. Cornelius Katona
Prof. Christopher Kelnar
Dr. Asad Khan
Mr. Steve Kilby
Dr. Danni Kirwan
Prof. Parveen Kumar
Prof. Malcolm Macleod
Dr. Javed Mahmood
Mr. Masood Majoka
Dr. Steven Martin
Dr. Adrian Martineau
Dr. Margaret McCartney
Dr. David McCoy
Dr. John Middleton
Dr. Jennifer Mindell
Dr. Rosemary Mullett
Mrs. Sarah Mumford
Dr. Elisabeth Murray
Dr. Annette Neary
Dr. Penny Neild
Dr. David Nicholl
Dr. Joost den Otter
Dr. Neil Pakenham-Walsh
Dr. Louise Pealing
Dr. Tomasz Pierscionek
Prof. Allyson Pollock
Dr. Piyush Pushkar
Dr. Ian Roberts
Dr. James Robertson
Dr. Benjamin Robinson
Dr. Martin Samuels
Dr. Mariam Sbaiti
Dr. Claudia Schoenborn
Dr. Anoop Shah
Miss Linda Shampan
Dr. Khaled Sherlala
Dr. Gregory Shields
Prof. Sam Shuster
Dr. Marianna Siapera
Dr. S Ruth Silverman
Dr. Ron Singer
Dr. Richard Smith MSc
Gerrianne Smits
Dr. Egan Soph
Miss Rachael South
Dr. Angharad Spencer
Dr. Angelo Stefanini
Dr. Lucy Stephenson
Dr. Sarah Stringer
Mr. Ciaran Stuart
Mrs. Rachel Stuchbury
Dr. Payam Torabi
Dr. Zara Usmani
Dr. David Webb
Dr. Natalia Wielgosz
Prof. Hywel Williams
Dr. Lesley Wilson
Dr. Tom Yates
Prof. John Yudkin

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 four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “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.

6 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone who has liked and shared this. It’s important that organizations and groups of prominent individuals – like the 153 doctors responsible for this letter – keep the pressure on President Obama to follow up on his promises to resume releasing pirosners from Guantanamo and to work towards closing the prison. The recent appointment of Cliff Sloan as an envoy at the State Department was a start, but we need to see someone released from Guantanamo as soon as possible – and Shaker Aamer remains the most obvious candidate. I wish the UK government would offer to take Ahmed Belbacha too, but that’s never been offered by anyone in power.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Dave Colding wrote:

    Rubber hoses, speculums, and ensure. And for what. Close that shit down, and give that land back to the sovereign nation of cuba!!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Very well put, Dave. Thanks.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Dave Colding wrote:

    And thank you andy on your book,and articles on the guantanamo prison dilemma.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Dave. Thanks for the appreciation.

  6. freedetainees.org – Little Progress in the Four Months Since Obama’s Promise to Resume Releasing Cleared Prisoners from Guantánamo says...

    […] from the U.S. and around the world condemned the force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantánamo in a letter to President Obama that was published in the Lancet, and in July the British Medical Association (BMA) followed suit, […]

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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