Former Guantánamo Prisoner Lakhdar Boumediene Condemns “Cruel, Sadistic” New Policy of Allowing Hunger Strikers to Starve


Former Guantanamo prisoner Lakhdar Boumediene.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 nearly a month since Guantánamo thrust its way back into the public consciousness with news from the human rights organization Reprieve that, under a new chief medical officer at Guantánamo, the rules for treating long-term hunger strikers had changed. Where, previously, those going without food were force-fed when they lost a fifth of their body weight, two hunger strikers — Ahmed Rabbani and Khalid Qassim, clients of Reprieve — indicated that, since the new appointment, on September 20, they were no longer being force-fed, and were not even being monitored.

Following further phone discussions with their clients, Reprieve suggested that what was happening was that prisoners were being left to suffer whatever damage might ensue from prolonged starving, but the medical authorities were still intending to force-feed them if it looked like they might die.

Force-feeding is a horrible process, of course, akin to torture, but although medical experts insist that mentally competent prisoners must be allowed to starve themselves to death, if they wish, that does not strike me as relevant at Guantánamo, where the men on hunger strike have never been tried or convicted of any crime, and allowing them to die would actually endorse the very reason they are hunger striking in the first place — because they are being held without charge or trial, with no end in sight to their preposterously long ordeal, and they have no other way of protesting about the injustice of their predicament.

Two weeks ago, Reprieve submitted an emergency motion to the District Court in Washington, D.C., asking a judge to intervene, but since then the trail has gone cold, as the government has dragged its heels regarding its response. Further developments are expected very soon, but in the meantime Maha Hilal, the Michael Ratner Middle East fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., wrote an article for Newsweek about the unfolding scandal, in which she spoke to Eric Lewis, the Washington, D.C-based attorney who is the chairman of Reprieve US and co-counsel for Ahmed Rabbani, who told her that “he now weighs just 95 pounds.”

As Maha Hilal also explained, “When I asked him whether the government would actually let prisoners at Guantánamo die, Lewis answered, ‘I don’t think they want to do that, but I don’t think they are good enough to really manage the process. So I wouldn’t rule it out.’ In other words, the only way out of Guantánamo might be for the prisoners to starve to death on the government’s watch.”

Maha Hilal also explained that a “lack of access to Rabbani has made it difficult to monitor his condition, and a recently filed affidavit by the senior medical officer in question disputed Rabbani’s claims.”  However, Lewis told her that Rabbani is “in an ‘acute state of distress,’ eating less than 300 calories of fruit a day,” and “what is clear is that he has been on prolonged hunger strike, he is severely underweight and decompensating, and the [US government] controls all the information” — which is why Lewis and his co-counsel “filed an injunction asking, among other things, for regular updates on Rabbani’s condition, including his vitals and his weight.”

Another response to the ongoing crisis came in the form of an article for New Republic by Lakhdar Boumediene, one of six Algerians kidnapped from Bosnia-Herzegovina in January 2002, flown to Guantánamo, and subjected to horrible abuse. The six were seized in connection with a plot that the US authorities had invented, but it took years for them to be able to challenge the basis of their wrongful imprisonment.

Boumediene gave his name to the Supreme Court case that, in June 2008, finally led to the Guantánamo prisoners being granted constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights, and in the two years that followed, before the D.C. Circuit Court shut down those rights (with, ever since, the Supreme Court refusing to revisit Guantánamo prisoners’ rights), Boumediene had his release ordered.

Earlier this year, Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in Guantánamo, a book he co-wrote with another of the Algerians, Mustafa Ait Idr, was released, revealing both men as compelling commentators on the brutality and horrors of Guantánamo.

Boumediene’s op-ed is posted below, and I hope you have time to read it, and will share it if you find it useful. I was impressed by how Boumediene explained how hunger strikes are not a death wish, but the only form of control that exists for men unjustly imprisoned with, seemingly, no way out of their ordeal. As he states, “I stopped eating not because I wanted to die, but because I could not keep living without doing something to protest the injustice of my treatment.”

Boumediene is also critical of force-feeding, but also, of course, recognizes how unacceptable it is to compel someone at Guantánamo to give up their hunger strike, and makes the following perceptive statement about the policy of the new chief medical officer: “when faced with two inhumane options, the American government seems to have chosen both of them.”

His conclusion is particular powerful. As he says, “the American government should stop denying Guantánamo detainees their basic legal and human rights. Detainees would not have to hunger strike in the first place if they received timely, fair trials and humane treatment.”

I Was Force-Fed at Guantánamo. What Guards Are Doing Now Is Worse.
By Lakhdar Boumediene, New Republic, October 30, 2017

The military prison camp is reportedly allowing hunger strikers to waste away for longer times between feedings. It is a cruel, sadistic approach.

On November 20, 2008, sitting in my cell in Guantánamo, I swallowed food for the first time since 2006. It was a celebration of sorts. Earlier that day, my friends and I had listened to Judge Richard Leon announce his decision in our case, Boumediene v. Bush. It had taken nearly seven years and a successful appeal to the United States Supreme Court to compel the judge to review our case, but once he did, it only took a matter of days for him to realize there was no case against us. When he ordered our release, I was so relieved, so overcome with emotion, so excited to be reunited with my wife and children, that I don’t even remember what I ate.

The next morning, I resumed my hunger strike.

“Next time I eat,” I told the guards, “it will be in my own home, from the hand of my wife.”

Another 181 days passed before I was actually released. With the exception of my one celebratory meal, I had eaten nothing but what was force-fed to me through a tube. I emerged from Guantánamo at 5’9” weighing 125 pounds. When my older daughter first saw me, I was so wasted away she didn’t recognize me. “This man,” she told my wife, “is too old to be my father.”

I am sometimes asked why I went on a hunger strike. Did you want to die? Had you given up? The answer is no. Even in the darkest moments of my seven years in Guantánamo, I never let go of the hope that I would one day see my wife and daughters again.

I stopped eating not because I wanted to die, but because I could not keep living without doing something to protest the injustice of my treatment. They could lock me up for no reason and with no chance to argue my innocence. They could torture me, deprive me of sleep, put me in an isolation cell, control every single aspect of my life. But they couldn’t make me swallow their food. And I knew they wouldn’t let a detainee starve to death.

That, however, may no longer be the case. According to The Guardian and other news outlets, hunger-striking detainees have not been fed in the last month. “I am slowly slipping away,” Khalid Qasim told his attorney, “and no one notices.”

To be honest, I’m torn about whether hunger-strikers should be force-fed. On the one hand, force-feeding is a form of torture. You’re strapped into a six-point restraint chair — we even called it the “torture chair” — and a lengthy tube is jammed into your nose and snaked down your throat. You feel as though you are choking, being strangled, and yet somehow still able to breathe. It’s an excruciating, impossible-to-describe feeling that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

At the same time, it is also torture to force a man to choose between giving up his only means of protest and giving up his life.

Remarkably, when faced with two inhumane options, the American government seems to have chosen both of them. The human rights organization Reprieve reports that “instead of force feeding them in the painful way previously done, Guantánamo medical staff have adopted a strategy of allowing the men to starve; denying them basic medical checks until their organs begin to fail and they become seriously ill; whereupon, when they are half dead, they will be kept half alive in forever-detention without trial.”

If true, this is a particularly cruel, sadistic approach. At the very least, if the American government is going to torture detainees by force-feeding them, it should return to the old policy of doing so before they starve half to death.

Better yet, the American government should stop denying Guantánamo detainees their basic legal and human rights. Detainees would not have to hunger strike in the first place if they received timely, fair trials and humane treatment. They demand justice for themselves in the only way they can because the rest of the world does not demand it for them. They are slipping away because no one notices. As a recent article about Guantánamo concludes, “Innocent, guilty, or somewhere in between, every human deserves to be treated as one.”

Lakhdar Boumediene was the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Boumediene v. Bush. Prior to his seven-year internment in Guantánamo Bay, he was an aid worker for the Red Crescent Society in Bosnia. He now lives in France with his wife and children, and is the co-author of Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in Guantánamo.

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 Donald Trump No! Please Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2017), 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:

    As we await a response from the District Court in Washington, D.C. to an emergency motion submitted by Reprieve asking a judge to order the government to allow independent medical experts to visit Guantanamo to assess the health of the long-term hunger strikers that Donald Trump seems to be allowing to starve to death, here’s a cross-post, with my own commentary, of a powerful article by former prisoner Lakhdar Boumediene. Published in New Republic, it’s a criticism of Trump’s new policy, but also an explanation of why prisoners go on a hunger strike – in Guantanamo, of course, it’s because it’s the only means the prisoners have of protesting about the ongoing and seemly unending injustice of being held without charge for trial. Instead of letting them starve, Donald Trump should put them on trial, or set them free.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Maha Hilal wrote:

    Thank you for all your work Andy. This is truly despicable and I know we’re all worried about what the future holds for Guantanamo.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Maha, and thanks for all your work. It’s so difficult trying to keep the spotlight on Guantanamo these days, isn’t it? At least others are helping – Trump after the New York attack, and Air Force Col. Vance Spath imprisoning Brig. Gen. John Baker. That’s really quite extraordinary!

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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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