Don’t Forget the Hunger Strike at Guantánamo

by Andy Worthington | June 4, 2013

Monitoring the hunger strike — and pointing out that President Obama must keep his promises — are both hugely important, especially as the media, and people in general, may well lose interest after President Obama’s speech, and believe that, because he has made promises, those promises will inevitably come true.

For the latter imperative — making sure that President Obama keeps his promises — I’m currently working on a new campaign with a number of NGOs and activist groups, and for the former, the Guardian published a useful article last Thursday, entitled, “Guantánamo Bay hunger strike worsens,” and followed up with an open letter from 13 prisoners demanding independent medical access to the prison to assess their situation.

As the Guardian explained, the hunger strike “has worsened” since President Obama’s speech. The paper noted, “On the eve of Obama’s address, there were 103 prisoners on hunger strike, with 31 being force-fed by military authorities and one in hospital. Since then, not a single prisoner has stopped their strike, and now 36 of the detainees are being force-fed to keep them alive, with five of them being hospitalised.” On Sunday, that number had risen to 37.

Carlos Warner, who represents a number of prisoners, including Fayiz al-Kandari, one of the last two Kuwaitis, said, “The numbers of strikers are not moving downwards. Nothing has changed.” Others, as the Guardian put it, “said they feared the media spotlight would move on from the issue, despite the fact that nothing concrete has yet emerged from Obama’s speech.”

Omar Farah, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, “The hunger strike is the only reason we are talking about Guantánamo. It would be a terrible mistake by the administration to think that they have dealt with this with one speech.”

The Guardian added, “lawyers and human rights activists have said that they need to see firm steps taken after the speech,” and also stated, “If this latest push fails, some observers say, the impact on the hunger striking prisoners’ morale could be catastrophic.” Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the London-based legal action charity Reprieve, whose lawyers currently represent 15 prisoners, including Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, said, “In many ways, the most dangerous thing for these prisoners is to offer them hope.”

Clive Stafford Smith, and other attorneys, also complained about the “intense body searches of prisoners seeking to make phone calls,” which, Stafford Smith said, “appeared designed to intimidate inmates from communicating with the outside world,” as the Guardian put it. Stafford Smith reported that Shaker Aamer had told him, last Friday, “To describe you the humiliation … they tossed me around like a burger. Flat on my back. They started dressing me with small-size underwear.”

The Guardian also noted that Stafford Smith “reported that of the last six phone calls he had tried to place to clients, four of them had been rejected because detainees had not wanted to go through the process.” Carlos Warner also told the Guardian that “he had had recent difficulty communicating with his clients.”

As part of the “intense body searches,” other prisoners have spoken about their genitals being touched during searches, and some have added that “they have been subject to body cavity searches.” Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian prisoner represented by lawyers at Reprieve, who is one of the 86 men cleared for release but still held, said, “Our private parts are checked and they know is a sensitive matter for us and our religion.”

Abu Wa’el has now “filed legal papers alleging a deliberate policy of using the searches as a method of intimidation,” as the Guardian described it. He stated, “The primary manner in which this has been done has been by instituting a new search protocol that exploits the prisoners’ well-known phobias when it comes to anything that might be construed as sexual contact.”

The military denied the claims, with spokesman Col. Samuel House stating, “We conduct detention operations in a safe, humane, legal and transparent manner. Any allegations that we are conducting strip searches and cavity searches as a condition of legal phone calls are nonsense,” However, it is hard to square this with what the Guardian accurately described as “harrowing accounts of the reality of the mass force-feeding that is now being carried out on dozens of the protesters by a military medical team rushed to Cuba to deal with the crisis.”

Samir Moqbel, a Yemeni whose case gained prominence when an op-ed he wrote was featured in the New York Times, told his lawyers at Reprieve, “Sometimes the person on hunger strike vomits as a result of this, which is painful. This happened to me several times when the [feeding] tube goes down from the nose to the throat and strikes the tongue.”

Another prisoner who spoke about the pain caused by the hunger strike is Ahmed Ghulam Rabbani, one of two brothers held in “black sites” prior to their arrival at Guantánamo in September 2004, who is also represented by lawyers at Reprieve. He said that he has lost 60lbs since the hunger strike began, and now weighs just 107lbs. “I vomit and cough blood,” he said, adding, “I have often thought of smashing my head against the wall and cracking it because of [severe pain].”

The force-feeding is causing such distress to the prisoners that 13 of wrote an open letter to the authorities on May 30, calling for independent medical professionals be allowed into Guantánamo to treat them.

The full text of the letter is posted below:

From: Detainee(s) on hunger strike in Naval Base, Guantánamo Bay
An open letter to my military doctor: allow independent medical access

Dear Doctor,

I do not wish to die, but I am prepared to run the risk that I may end up doing so, because I am protesting the fact that I have been locked up for more than a decade, without a trial, subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and denied access to justice. I have no other way to get my message across. You know the authorities have taken everything from me.

For this reason, I am respectfully requesting that independent medical professionals be allowed into Guantánamo to treat me, and that they be given full access to my medical records, in order to determine the best treatment for me.

You claim to be acting according to your duties as a physician to save my life. This is against my expressed wish. As you should know, I am competent to make my own decisions about medical treatment. When I try to refuse the treatments you offer, you force them upon me, sometimes violently. For those reasons, you are in violation of the ethics of your profession, as the American Medical Association and World Medical Association have made clear.

My decision to go on hunger strike and to endure semi-starvation for over 100 days was not entered into lightly. I am doing it because it is literally the only method I have to make the outside world pay attention. Your response to my carefully considered decision cannot logically lead to the conclusion that your only goal is to save my life — your actions over recent months do not support such an inference.

For those of us being force-fed against our will, the process of having a tube repeatedly forced up our noses and down our throats in order to keep us in a state of semi-starvation is extremely painful and the conditions under which it is done are abusive. If you truly had my best medical interests at heart, you could have talked to me like a human being about my choices, instead of treating me in a way that feels like I am being punished for something.

You must know that your professional overreaction to my participation in the hunger strike has been condemned by no lesser an authority than the United Nations; the Special Rapporteur on Health has stated unequivocally 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, nor is it 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.”

In any regard, I cannot trust your advice, because you are responsible to your superior military officers who require you to treat me by means unacceptable to me, and you put your duty to them above your duty to me as a doctor. Your dual loyalties make trusting you impossible.

For these reasons, our present doctor-patient relationship cannot contribute to resolving the threats to my health that this hunger strike is engendering. You may be able to keep me alive for a long time in a permanently debilitated state. But with so many of us on hunger strike, you are attempting a treatment experiment on an unprecedented scale. And you cannot be certain that human error will not creep in and result in one or more of us dying.

Your superiors, up to and including President Obama, their Commander-in-Chief, recognize that my death or that of another hunger striker here would have serious undesirable consequences. You have been ordered to guarantee — with absolute certainty — my survival, but it is beyond your (or perhaps any doctor’s) ability to do that.

I have some sympathy for your impossible position. Whether you continue in the military or return to civilian practice, you will have to live with what you have done and not done here at Guantánamo for the rest of your life. Going forward, you can make a difference. You can choose to stop actively contributing to the abusive conditions I am currently enduring.

I am asking you only to raise with your superiors my urgent request that I be allowed access to examination by and independent medical advice from a doctor or doctors chosen by my lawyers, in confidence, and that those doctors to be supplied with my full medical notes in advance of their visit.

This is the least you can do to uphold the minimum of your oath to “do no harm.”

Yours sincerely,
The Detainees on Hunger Strike at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base

Those signing it, or having attorneys sign on their behalf, are:

Shaker Aamer (UK, ISN 239), Ahmed Belbacha (Algeria, ISN 290), Younus Chekhouri (Morocco, ISN 197), Abu Wa’el Dhiab (Syria, ISN 722), Mohammed Ghanem (Yemen, ISN 44), Nabil Hadjarab (Algeria, ISN 238), Adel al-Hakeemy (Tunisia, ISN 168), Mohammed Hidar (Yemen, ISN 498), Sanad al-Kazimi (Yemen, ISN 1453), Samir Moqbel (Yemen, ISN 43), Abdullatif Nasser (Morocco, ISN 244), Mohammed Nabi Omari (Afghanistan, ISN 832) and Abdul Haq Wasiq (Afghanistan, ISN 4).

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. This article originally appeared on his website on June 4, 2013.