EXCLUSIVE: Fears for Long-Term Hunger Striker at Guantánamo: Lawyers Urge Court to Order Independent Medical Examination


Guantanamo prisoner Sharqawi al-Hajj and some text summarizing his predicament in September 2017.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.


On Wednesday, in a story that has not been reported elsewhere, the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed an emergency motion asking for an independent medical examination and medical records for Sharqawi al-Hajj, a Yemeni held without charge or trial at Guantánamo since September 2004, who, as CCR put it, “was held in secret detention and brutally tortured for over two years” before his arrival at Guantánamo.

CCR submitted an emergency motion after al-Hajj, who recently embarked on a hunger strike, and refused to submit to being force-fed, “lost consciousness and required emergency hospitalization.”

In the most chilling line in their press release about the emergency motion, CCR noted, “As of a recent phone call with his attorneys, Al Hajj was still on hunger strike and weighed 104 pounds.”

As CCR explained, “His hunger strike compounds long-standing concerns about his health. Prior to his detention, Al Hajj was diagnosed with the Hepatitis B virus, an infection affecting the liver that can be life-threatening, and experiences chronic, potentially ominous related symptoms, including jaundice, extreme weakness and fatigue, and severe abdominal pain.”

In a medical declaration submitted in support of the emergency motion, Dr. Jess Ghannam, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Global Health Sciences in the School of Medicine at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF), assessed that al-Hajj could be on the verge of “total bodily collapse.”

Dr. Ghannam stated:

In his habeas pleadings, he [al-Hajj] recounts and describes a consistent pattern of torture – both severe physical and mental abuse – before arriving at Guantánamo. His descriptions of torture are consistent with my review of the literature and from my own direct examination of detainees with the same trajectory before arriving at Guantánamo. I have described a condition, referred to a “Guantánamo Syndrome,” where individuals subjected to severe torture in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Jordan develop a wide range of significant medical and psychiatric symptoms and conditions that are debilitating and disabling. The symptoms include sleep difficulties, cognitive difficulties, gastro-intestinal difficulties, chronic pain, chronic headaches, fatigue, and general physical impairment. These symptoms are present in individuals who are not on hunger strikes and can cause severe physical and neuropsychological damage. In the midst of a hunger strike, these symptoms can lead to total bodily collapse and medically irreparable harm. It is my opinion, with reasonable medical probability, that Mr. Hajj may very well be on the precipice of total bodily collapse.

An attorney with CCR visited al-Hajj in Guantánamo last month, and witnessed his deteriorating condition.

However, Pardiss Kebriaei, a senior staff attorney at CCR, issued a statement in which she expressed no expectation that the government would act. She stated:

As it has virtually every time we have sounded an alarm about detainees, the government will deny there’s anything wrong, as if captivity for over 15 years with still no end in sight, on top of the documented torture these men have been through, is healthy, legal, and, moral.

She added:

The human experiment at Guantánamo – where the government tests how far it can go, first with torture and now with hopeless, perpetual detention, before breaking human beings – must end. Since the Trump administration will do nothing to respect human rights and the precarious health of our client, the courts must order it to.

In a further description of al-Hajj’s case, CCR noted that he “was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 [in a house raid in February 2002] and rendered by the United States to secret prisons, where he was interrogated under threats of electrocution and physical violence, subjected to regular beatings, and forced to endure complete darkness and continuous loud music.”

CCR added that his brutal treatment was “detailed in a ruling by the district court in Washington, D.C. striking statements from certain of his interrogations as tainted by torture.” That was in 2011, but prior to that his torture had been acknowledged by a judge considering the habeas corpus petition of another prisoner, Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, in February 2010. Ruling on the eligibility of statements made by al-Hajj and Sanad al-Kazimi, another prisoner held in “black sites” before being sent to Guantánamo, Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. stated, “The Court will not rely on the statements of Hajj or Kazimi because there is unrebutted evidence in the record that, at the time of the interrogations at which they made the statements, both men had recently been tortured.”

In recent years, al-Hajj had his case reviewed by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process set up by President Obama. Although 38 out of 64 men had their release recommended by the PRB process, al-Hajj was not one of them. Following a PRB in March 2016, at which he was described by the US authorities as “a career jihadist who acted as a prominent financial and travel facilitator for al-Qa’ida members before and after the 9/11 attacks,” he was approved for ongoing detention on April 14, 2016. A second review took place In February 2017, but his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial was approved in March. As CCR noted, “His next full review by the PRB will be in 2020.”

The question, now, however – beyond whether it is acceptable to hold someone for 18 years without charge or trial (which it clearly isn’t) – is whether al-Hajj will live that long.

Note: For more information about the case, see the CCR case page, where you can also find CCR’s emergency motion, a declaration by Pardiss Kebriaei and another medical declaration, by Dr. Robert L. Cohen.

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.

14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s an exclusive, following up on the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filing an emergency motion to try to get a judge to order an independent medical examination for Sharqawi al-Hajj, a Yemeni prisoner at Guantanamo who is on a hunger strike and weighs just 104 pounds. Al-Hajj also has an array of medical problems, including Hepatitis B, jaundice, extreme weakness and fatigue, and severe abdominal pain, and an expert, Dr. Jess Ghannam, assessed that, after he collapsed recently after refusing to be force-fed, he could be on the verge of “total bodily collapse.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I was having difficulty getting this out to people on Facebook, so I made up an image highlighting the key aspects of the case, and posted it, stating, “Once upon a time stories of hunger strikers at Guantanamo used to attract a lot of attention. Now, under Trump, no one seems to care. This is Sharqawi al-Hajj, who weighs just 104 pounds, and whose lawyers are asking a judge to order the government to allow an independent medical expert to visit him after he recently collapsed. There are fears that he may be facing ‘total bodily collapse.'”

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner wrote:

    Some people do care, but not enough…

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s rarely been enough people, Sandrine. Bush got flak in his second term, Obama had good will on his side in the early days, and he too got flak in 2013 after the prison-wide under strike reminded people of the everyday horrors of Guantanamo – and, essentially, the unceasing injustice. But apart from on those occasions, the numbers of US citizens who care has never been significant enough, and under Trump it’s depressing to watch Guantanamo drop off the radar almost completely, as so many injustices jostle for people’s attention.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    Many people care and the people incarcerated in the hell hole called Guantanamo with its illegal detention (without evidence or charge) are certainly in my mind and I am sure many, many others – what can we do please Andy? and thank you for keeping this candle flickering – it’s scandalous.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your ongoing concern, Lindis. I think in Britain we’re going to need to try – again – to wake up some interest amongst MPs in making the US aware that the ongoing existence of Guantanamo is completely unacceptable.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    With you all the way Andy…how many people are detained now and how has the Trump jambouree changed the hell hole – I don’t seem to have seen anything from Trump (thank goodness) about this since he was wrongly ‘elected’.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    41 men still held, Lindis, and no, Trump’s done very little, but he’s sealed it shut effectively – and he’s still making horrible threats: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2017/08/30/donald-trump-is-still-trying-to-work-out-how-to-expand-the-use-of-guantanamo-rather-than-closing-it-for-good/

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    Thank you Andy for reminding me about all this…trouble is there is so much to be troubled about – but I do think about them and will try and do something – somehow. in the meantime Andy – you are terrific! xx

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks so much, Lindis. I am so inspired by what you and CAAB do – and was so honoured to be invited to talk outside Menwith Hill at your July 4th event back in 2013. Incidentally, I’m playing with my band The Four Fathers at the Festival of Resistance outside the DSEI arms fair tomorrow! https://www.facebook.com/events/1900940483503167/

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner wrote, in response to 4, above:

    The most worrying thing is that most people in the US are paying attention but they think it’s right, they find reason to this madness.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s very true, Sandrine. The examples I cited above were the only times that anything approaching the slimmest majority of Americans thought that the existence of Guantanamo was wrong.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    At least Obama tried. But Trump has no intentions of closing Gitmo and is probably incapable of understanding the issue in any adult, rational way.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I think, sadly, that that is an entirely accurate description of the idiot president, Mary Shepard. I have to wonder if there’s any issue involving any nuance or any complexity whatsoever that he can understand. That said, there are clearly many Republican lawmakers who are also incapable of the same, although they can probably all do a slightly better impression of a more or less functioning adult.

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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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