Skeletal, 75-Pound Guantánamo Hunger Striker Tariq Ba Odah Seeks Release; Medical Experts Fear For His Life


A restraint chair at Guantanamo, used to force-feed prisoners (Photo by Jason Leopold).I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

For the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, introduced by the United Nations in 1997 to mark the entry into force of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment on June 26, 1987, a vivid reminder of the horrors of Guantánamo emerged the day before, when lawyers for Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni prisoner identified by the US authorities as Tarek Baada, sought “a court order granting his habeas petition and compelling the government to facilitate [his] immediate release” because of fears that, otherwise, he will die at the prison. The submission to the court is here.

Tariq, who was picked up in Pakistan by the local authorities at the end of 2001 and turned over to the US military, arrived at Guantánamo shortly after the prison opened in 2002, when he was 23 years old. He is now 36, and he is still held despite being approved for release in January 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009. He is one of 30 men, all Yemenis, who were placed in a category invented by the task force — “conditional detention,” which was made dependant on perceptions of the security situation in his home country improving, although it was never made clear who would make that decision, or how it would come about.

However, since President Obama began finding new homes in third countries for Yemenis approved for release last November, the only obstacle to his release now is the difficulty of finding a country to accept him, as well as countries prepared to offer new homes to the 29 other Yemenis in “conditional detention,” and 13 other Yemenis approved for release by the task force — or approved for release in the last year and a half by Periodic Review Boards — but still held. Since last November, 18 Yemenis have been released from Guantánamo to third countries.

In Tariq’s case, however, the need to find a third country to accept him — or for the US to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, where his family lives, to take him in — has become urgent. He is one of a handful of hunger strikers at Guantánamo who have been on a hunger strike for eight years — since 2007 — and he is, to put it bluntly, at risk of death. He is represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, and in a press release on Thursday CCR explained that, “According to information disclosed by the government, Mr. Ba Odah weighs only approximately 75 lbs. — 56 percent of his ideal body weight — a weight that experts say puts him ‘on the precipice of death.'”

His attorney, Omar Farah, said, “I visited Tariq on April 21, and he was nearly unrecognizable to me. He is now enduring more suffering at Guantánamo than he has ever known. All the bones in his midsection are visible through his skin, his jawline and teeth protrude, and he says he is losing sensation in his hands and feet and his memory is fading. Despite having been cleared for release more than five years ago and despite his shocking condition, he is still being held in solitary confinement in Guantánamo’s Camp 5 facing irreversible harm and possibly death.”

In the court submission, Omar Farah stated, “During meetings with counsel in March and April of this year, Mr. Ba Odah was so dramatically underweight as to be essentially unrecognizable, even by standards of his usual frailty … In the absence of a photograph, counsel can only compare Mr. Ba Odah’s appearance to iconic and horrifying photographs of Holocaust survivors.” Omar Farah reported that Tariq said, “My life is not like it was; this is the hardest time I have ever had.”

Tariq Ba Odah, in a photo from Guantanamo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011. This photo is probably from around 2007, when Tariq began his hunger strike.In the submission to the District Court in Washington D.C., Tariq’s lawyers sought to revive his habeas corpus petition. Back in January 2009, as they explained, “counsel filed an unopposed motion to stay his petition because Mr. Ba Odah often declined or was physically unable to attend attorney-client meetings,” and in March 2014 Tariq formally withdrew his habeas petition. As the lawyers stated, “His health dictated that he elect to withdraw; in his already weakened state, Mr. Ba Odah could not effectively participate in mounting a defense to the government’s allegations against him.”

Tariq’s lawyers also spelled out his predicament in stark terms: “As the government reported during counsel’s last trip to Guantánamo, Mr. Ba Odah’s weight has dropped to an alarming 74.5 pounds … Mr. Ba Odah is visibly suffering from the devastating effects of severe malnutrition and is at serious risk of permanent physical and neurological impairment and death. He seeks habeas relief from this Court because the laws of war no longer authorize his continued detention under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (‘AUMF’). This Court is thus empowered and, under the circumstances here, obligated to provide that relief.”

The lawyers added, “As the Supreme Court explained in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004), the government’s asserted authority to indefinitely detain Mr. Ba Odah, pursuant to the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, is expressly constrained by the laws of war. The laws of war are incorporated into binding domestic law set forth in U.S. Army Regulation 190-8, which delineates categories of prisoners who are seriously ill, such as Mr. Ba Odah, and provides for their direct humanitarian release and repatriation.”

As CCR also explained, “Medical experts in today’s filing confirm the military’s force-feeding regimen is failing to keep him alive.”

Three medical experts submitted declarations in Tariq’s case, and in every case their analysis was deeply alarming.

Dr. Jess Ghannam, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Global Health Sciences in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said, “A weight of 75 pounds for an adult male is a phenomenon rarely, if ever encountered by the medical profession. It is a level of physical deterioration typically seen in a late-stage cancer or AIDS patient, as it is usually indicative that someone is on the precipice of death due to severe malnutrition, organ failure, and systemic collapse.”

Dr. Mohammed Rami Bailony, Medical Director of Enara Health Group, P.C.,added, “His body is in such a fragile state owing to his depleted caloric absorption and compromised vital organs, that any additional stress on the body, from an infection, fever, or serious injury, could quite simply overwhelm his systemic response causing death in a period of days.”

The third expert, Dr. Sondra S. Crosby, Director and Co-Founder of the Immigration and Refugee Health Program at the Boston Medical Center and Director of the Forensic Medical Evaluation Group at Boston University School of Medicine, stated, “Put simply, Mr. Ba Odah’s survival and rehabilitation are out of his hands. He most likely cannot recover by simply abandoning his hunger strike and introducing solid food in his diet.”

As his lawyers described it in their submission: “Mr. Ba Odah is on a prolonged hunger strike to peacefully protest his over thirteen years of indefinite detention without charge. As of this filing, he has not voluntarily eaten food in eight years and four months. Despite being force fed, Mr. Ba Odah is suffering from an array of dangerous symptoms attributable to severe malnutrition. At this sensitive stage, however, where his body appears unable to properly absorb calories or micronutrients, his further deterioration cannot likely be remediated by increasing the volume of commercial liquid formula the government feeds him through his nose — though Mr. Ba Odah reports the government has already attempted that approach. Even ingesting solid food now presents a mortal risk to Mr. Ba Odah.”

His lawyers also stated: “Mr. Ba Odah believes his protest has provoked a punitive backlash from the military, designed to get him to abandon his hunger strike. This is manifested by, among other abuses and indignities, violent cell-extractions, force-feeding sessions that leave him wet with his own vomit, and unremitting confinement in solitary conditions in Guantánamo’s Camp 5, where now he says he does not see anyone and he does not see the sun. This is to say nothing of his psychological torment: Mr. Ba Odah is plagued by uncertainty about his fate. After over thirteen years of indefinite detention, Mr. Ba Odah fears he may never leave Guantánamo though he has never been charged and despite being approved for release by the very government that continues to imprison him.”

They added: “Mr. Ba Odah does not wish to die; he wishes to be reunited with his family in Saudi Arabia or to be freed to any other safe country where he can begin to recover … At the same time, he feels compelled by the injustice he is enduring at Guantánamo to continue his hunger strike, the only peaceful way available for him to protest with self-control and with dignity. If he were repatriated to Saudi Arabia or resettled elsewhere, he would end his hunger strike and welcome rehabilitative care … He seeks peace and a return home: ‘There is nothing else I want. There is nothing better that I care about.'”

Urging immediate action, Omar Farah said, “Tariq must be released immediately. The Obama administration has seen prisoners die at Guantánamo on its watch before. If it had foreseen those deaths, would it have done anything differently? For the sake of Tariq — who is now 75 pounds and in immense suffering — and for justice, I hope the answer is yes.”

Here at “Close Guantánamo,” we can only echo Omar Farah’s words.

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). He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the co-director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, 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.

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17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted the original version of this on Facebook, I wrote:

    On the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, here’s my latest article, a ‪Guantanamo‬ torture story: of Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni, approved for release in 2009 but still held (like Shaker Aamer and 51 other men out of the 116 men still held) who has been on an uninterrupted hunger strike since 2007 – for 8 years and 4 months – and is at risk of death. He is asking a US judge to order his release. We ask: President Obama, where is your compassion?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Georgina Mahmoud PT wrote:

    May Allah swt grant them Shifaa

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Georgina. Good to hear from you.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Sven Wraight wrote:

    President Obama’s got compassion, but he doesn’t have enough power, yet. When a president leaves office, they usually give out a bunch of Presidential Pardons (like Ford letting off Nixon, to cite a bad example). I’m hoping he’ll release the remaining Guantanamo inmates from their false imprisonment then. However, that may not save Tariq Ba Odah’s life…

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Sven. I wonder if there’s manoeuvring behind the scenes to get Tariq out. It’s certainly true that the authorities don’t like the negative PR of deaths at the prison, so it would make sense for them to be working on it. How horrible, though, that someone the US says it doesn’t want to hold is at risk of death because he’s been on a hunger strike for so long.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Meena B Sharma wrote:

    This is so tragic Andy as you wrote here: “In Tariq’s case, however, the need to find a third country to accept him — or for the US to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, where his family lives, to take him in — has become urgent. He is one of a handful of hunger strikers at Guantánamo who have been on a hunger strike for eight years — since 2007 — and he is, to put it bluntly, at risk of death. He is represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, and in a press release on Thursday CCR explained that, “According to information disclosed by the government, Mr. Ba Odah weighs only approximately 75 lbs. — 56 percent of his ideal body weight — a weight that experts say puts him ‘on the precipice of death.’”

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for recognizing the horror of this situation, Meena. Something has gone horribly wrong when anyone held without charge or trial is being force-fed day after day, month after month and year after year when what they want is justice; when that person has been approved for release, however, the absurdity and the cruelty are almost beyond comprehension. And this, of course, has been going on for at least five and half years, since Obama’s task force approved Tariq for release.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Tony Simpson says:

    Please release Tariq without further delay.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your message, Tony. I sincerely hope the US government is paying attention to Tariq’s plight.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Meena B Sharma wrote:

    Thanks again my dear. These who are held for indefinite period without any charges against and force feeling them against their will..its barbaric and unjust system, as US following Israel or Israel is following US!. I am waiting to hear about the release of Tariq!

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Meena. I hope that there are many of us waiting to hear about news of Tariq’s release.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Was the “like” button ever more inadequate for this grotesque state of affairs?

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, perhaps we need an “empathise” button, David.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Sara SN wrote:

    thank you so much, Andy, for this.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Sara. Everyone should know. It’s such a horrible situation for anyone to be in – almost unimaginable. We should all think what we were doing and where we were 8 years and 4 months ago – in February 2007 – and imagine being force-fed every single day since then.

  16. Al-Lah Akbar says...

    He’s been on a hunger strike since 2007? Me thinks someone has been sneaking some snacks… I say just let this dude rot so he can earn his 72 underage virgens.

    “May Allah swt grant them Shifaa”…up de butt

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Let’s hope you never need anyone’s support and sympathy, then. Hunger strikers are force-fed liquid nutrient through a tube that goes up their nose into their stomach. That’s how he’s still alive, but he’s clearly very ill after nearly nine years of this. And you think he deserves this because of what, exactly? Because some old man in a position of alleged moral and spiritual authority told him he should go to Afghanistan, and he did some training on an AK-47? He wasn’t a terrorist, I doubt he ever raised arms against a single American. What do you think makes him – and so many other prisoners – deserve indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial? Your misguided and clearly obsessive sense of vengeance? That’s really not very helpful.

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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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