Growing concern over human rights crisis as Guantanamo hunger strike marks 100 days

The United States is coming under intense international criticism for its increasingly troubling record on torture and impunity, indefinite detention and the ongoing travesty of justice known as Guantanamo Bay.

As a hunger strike at Guantanamo involving over 100 prisoners enters its 100th day, calls are growing for the United States to end its method of force feeding that the UN has described as torture and for President Obama to finally live up to his longstanding promise to close the prison.

On Friday May 17, human rights groups and activists will mark the 100th day of the hunger strike by delivering over 300,000 petitions to the White House urging the president to take action. Hundreds of U.S. activists have already joined a hunger strike in solidarity with the Guantanamo prisoners. Actions are also being held outside the United States, including one in London on Saturday May 18 in which protesters will be creating a “murder scene” outside the U.S. Embassy to draw awareness to the potentially fatal consequences of the hunger strike and the U.S. government’s responsibility for it.

UN officials have also become increasingly vocal in their denunciations of the Obama administration’s policies, with El Hadji Malick Sow, head of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, calling the U.S. policy of indefinite detention “a flagrant violation of international law.” Earlier this month, Sow explained that dozens of detainees are already cleared for release but continue to languish in the prison alongside those designated for indefinite detention without trial.

“Of those,” Sow said, “56 are Yemeni nationals who have been denied release based solely on their nationality and on the political situation in Yemen, which constitutes a clear violation of the principle of non-discrimination and renders their detention arbitrary.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, added, “At Guantánamo, the indefinite detention of individuals, most of whom have not been charged, goes far beyond a minimally reasonable period of time and causes a state of suffering, stress, fear and anxiety, which in itself constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”

Drawing depicting the agony of force-feeding by Matt Rota

Drawing depicting the agony of force-feeding by Matt Rota

Many of the striking detainees are being force-fed a nutritional supplement through tubes inserted in their noses, a practice considered torture by many experts. As Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious-disease specialist in New York City, describes the process,

The hardware used in force feeding is very cheap and basic, though as with all medical equipment, there are ever more fancy versions. The procedure is this: after squirting a lubricant into one nostril, a two-foot long clear plastic tube of varying caliber, usually about as thick around as fat pencil, is snaked through the nose, down the back of the throat, and into the stomach. An X-ray is then performed to make certain the tube is placed correctly into the stomach or small intestine and not into the lung. Once confirmed, a liquid diet can be delivered and up to 2,000 calories a day provided—more than enough to keep a person alive.

During my training, I placed countless feeding tubes (and larger hoses to pump stomachs). Without question, it is the most painful procedure doctors routinely inflict on conscious patients. The nose—as anyone knows who ever has received a stinger from an errant baseball—has countless pain fibers. Some patients may scream and gasp as the tube is introduced; the tear ducts well up and overflow; the urge to sneeze or cough or vomit is often uncontrollable. A paper cup of water with a bent straw is placed before the frantic and miserable patient and all present implore him to Sip! Sip! in hopes of facilitating tube passage past the glottis and into the esophagus and stomach.

The procedure is, in a word, barbaric.

One detainee, Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, in an op-ed published by the New York Times last month, offered an account of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this barbaric procedure:

I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.

I am still being force-fed. Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. Sometimes they come during the night, as late as 11 p.m., when I’m sleeping.

UN Special Rapporteur on health Anand Grover has stressed that “health care personnel may not apply undue pressure of any sort on individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike.”

She added that it is also not acceptable to use threats of forced feeding or other types of physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have voluntarily decided to go on a hunger strike. The American Medical Association has also condemned such force-feedings as a violation of “core ethical values of the medical profession.”

On May 13, a coalition of 20 human rights organizations sent Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel a letter stating unqualified opposition to the ongoing force-feeding. As the letter makes clear, the Guantanamo force-feeding procedures constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in violation of international norms:

Because of force-feeding’s invasive nature, the World Medical Association (WMA), the preeminent international organization in the field of medical ethics and practice, has repeatedly condemned force-feeding of competent prisoners. The WMA’s Tokyo Declaration, adopted in 1975, states that doctors shall respect a competent prisoner’s right to refuse artificial feeding. And, in its Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers, adopted in 1991 and revised in 2006 in large part due to developments in Guantánamo, the WMA states that “[f]orcible feeding is never ethically acceptable. Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Force-feeding as used in Guantánamo violates Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which bar cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment, the coalition also points out.

Nevertheless, 40 additional military medical personnel have been sent to Guantanamo to assist with the controversial procedure.

But the torturous force-feedings are not the only way that the American prison guards are routinely tormenting their detainees.

One of the hunger strikers, British citizen Shaker Aamer, recently described in an open letter the abuse he is suffering at the hands of the Guantanamo prison authorities since the hunger strike began:

My treatment was bad before, but since the beginning of April I have been treated with particular venom. They started by taking my medical things. I had an extra blanket to lessen my rheumatism, but that was soon gone. My backbrace went at the same time. The pressure socks I had to keep the build-up of water down did not last long. Then they came for my toothbrush. Next, my sheet was taken, along with my shoes. My legal documents vanished soon after, leaving me only my kids’ drawings on the wall. They were the last to go.

And now I am left alone. Since 8am Monday, April 15, I have had nothing, not even my flip-flops. I am meant to sleep on concrete, and when I say alone, I mean alone in a very lonely world. The bean hole is what they call the small hatch on the door through which they normally pass my food. Recently they have started using a padlock to close it all day long. The OIC [Officer In Charge] keeps the key so no one else can open it.

The fact that the U.S. prison guards continue to torture these helpless detainees is particularly troubling considering the fact that the remaining men Guantanamo are not considered a threat to the United States. As Ben Emmerson, the Special Rapporteur on countering terrorism, recently explained: “All relevant security-related Government agencies or authorities have expressly certified that those detainees do not represent a threat to US security.”

Yet, in a nightmarish Kafkaesque and Orwellian situation, they remain locked up in a state of legal limbo, with little hope of ever seeing their loved ones again. As Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, explained in the New York Times,

I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen’s president do something, that is what I risk every day.

Where is my government? I will submit to any “security measures” they want in order to go home, even though they are totally unnecessary.

I will agree to whatever it takes in order to be free. I am now 35. All I want is to see my family again and to start a family of my own.

In the midst of this hunger strike, a high-level U.S. task force last month issued a bombshell report on detainee treatment which concluded, without reservation, that the United States has engaged in a systematic policy of torture in the years since 9/11.

“The Report of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment” is the product of more than two years of research, analysis and deliberation by the Task Force members and staff. It is considered the most comprehensive, bipartisan investigation into the detention and treatment of suspected terrorists yet published, providing painstaking details about the past and current treatment of suspected terrorists detained by the U.S. government during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo and the CIA’s secret “black site” prisons.

“Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” the report reads. “This finding, offered without reservation, is not based on any impressionistic approach to the issue. … Instead, this conclusion is grounded in a thorough and detailed examination of what constitutes torture in many contexts, notably historical and legal.”

The United States may not declare a nation guilty of engaging in torture and then exempt itself from being so labeled for similar if not identical conduct, the task force pointed out, noting that in some cases the torture has been approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

In a section on Guantanamo, the report described the prison camp as “a major testing ground for the government’s policy of engaging in highly coercive interrogation techniques, practices designed to visit torment on detainees in the expectation or hope they would give up important and usable intelligence to help fight the new style of war in which the United States found itself.”

In other words, Guantanamo is a torture camp. “It was the principal place where the government’s mostly unannounced shift in policy from detention for prosecution to detention for interrogation occurred.”

Rather than being brought quickly before some tribunal, detainees would be held at length for another purpose — interrogation. The view of the detainees as an intelligence resource to be mined contributed to the rapid deterioration of the human rights situation in the torture camp and to the extreme techniques deemed acceptable by authorities.

Now, 11 years on, the detainees have had enough and in an act of desperation have engaged in the only recourse they have left, to refuse food. But rather than address their legitimate grievances or work for a political solution to the crisis, the Pentagon and the Obama administration have opted instead to increase the level of torture used against the detainees.

It is a national disgrace and a human rights catastrophe of the highest order.

To demand justice for the Guantanamo prisoners, visit Close Guantanamo, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Code PinkAmnesty International and Cage Prisoners.

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