WASHINGTON (IPS) – “Bleeding,” “vomiting,” “a quarter or even a third” of bodyweight lost, “torture.” These are characteristic descriptions from testimony by hunger strikers at the detention center at U.S. Occupied Guantanamo Bay Cuba of their experience being force-fed at the hands of U.S. officials, published in a recent report.
The report, produced by Reprieve, a U.K.-based legal assistance and advocacy group that is representing more than a dozen of the Guantanamo prisoners, collates testimonies from the prisoners’ unclassified letters, calls and discussions with attorneys.
The views “from the inside” presented in these descriptions are extremely disturbing, and advocates say they raise serious questions concerning the United States’ commitment to human rights.
“From a medical standpoint, the force-feeding of a competent hunger striker is a serious violation of ethics,” Dr. Scott Allen, a medical advisor to the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights, told IPS.
Dr. Allen spent seven years as a physician working within the U.S. prison system, during which time he dealt with hunger strikers. He points out that force-feeding is counter to the standards of the World Medical Association. Further, those standards have been accepted by the American Medical Association, which has expressed opposition to the practices at Guantanamo Bay.
There are currently some 140 U.S. medical personnel tasked with carrying out the force-feedings that are being done to 45 hunger strikers at the detention center. More than 100 detainees are currently on a hunger strike that has gone on since February, in protest of what they view as their indefinite detention.
The accounts from inmates in the Reprieve report indicate that U.S. practices go even beyond the concerns expressed by Dr. Allen and the associations he mentions.
Some of the accounts describe forcible cell extractions (FCEs), as the procedure of physically removing prisoners from their cells and subjecting them to force-feeding is officially known.
The U.S. military has claimed that strikers “present themselves daily, calmly, in a totally cooperative way, to be fed through a tube.” Prisoner accounts of FCEs contradict that claim, however.
“They wanted me to undergo tests and, when I refused, they called in the anti-riot (FCE) squad, who stormed into my hospital room,” Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian detainee who was cleared for release in 2007, is cited in the report as saying. “They shackled my hands and feet to the bed and then force fed me intravenously for twenty-four hours.”
Of the 166 detainees in Guantanamo, 86 have been cleared to be let free, but they remain held in the prison because of complications that have arisen in facilitating their releases.
Another prisoner quoted by the report, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian national who was cleared for release in 2009, explains in graphic detail the pain he has experienced as a result of being force-fed.
“I vomited blood for three days. I had a very strong cough and felt that my throat was injured,” Mr. Dhiab recounts. “(A) while ago they broke a rib in my chest. After it healed, the FCE again broke the same rib. It happened over and over again and the injury gets worse.”
In a manual outlining standard operating procedure for 2013, which was leaked to the press, Guantanamo officials express their approach to hunger-striking patients using terminology reminiscent of war.
“Just as battlefield tactics must change throughout the course of a conflict, the medical responses to Guantanamo detainees who hunger strike has evolved with time,” the manual states.
As Dr. Allen notes, this adversarial approach would constitute a highly atypical stance for medical professionals to take toward their patients. Moreover, he says, it is not one which is likely to solve the issue.
“Handling the strike this way will lead the doctors to lose the trust of their patients,” he says. “And having no trust means there will be little chance of properly resolving the strike.”
The debate over force-feeding has rekindled talk of Guantanamo officials being engaged in torture, a public debate that seemingly ended after President Barack Obama banned the practice of water-boarding (a form of interrogation that simulates drowning) there in 2009.
Indeed, there are accounts in the Reprieve report which explicitly call force-feeding torture.
“The force-feeding itself is simple torture,” explains Shaker Aamer, a Saudi prisoner cleared for released in 2007 and again in 2009. “Now they are using the metal-tipped tubes, forcing them in and pulling them out twice a day, leaving people vomiting on themselves in the restraint chair, and so forth.”
Just as the controversy surrounding water-boarding was viewed by many as damaging to the United States’ international image, so the continuing subjection of inmates to force-feeding may degrade the country in the minds of citizens and governments around the globe, Dr. Allen explained to IPS.
“It diminishes the standing of the U.S. in the world that we don’t follow the established ethics of the medical profession,” he says.
There is currently political pressure building on the administration of President Obama to end the use of force-feeding.
Influential Senators Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin sent a letter to the administration imploring it to end the force-feeding and ultimately close the prison.