February 20, 2006

US Force-feeding Prisoners in Torture Camp

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Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Commission reported that the violent force-feeding of detainees by the US military at its Guantánamo prison camp amounts to torture.

More than a third of the prisoners held there have refused food to protest being held incommunicado for years with no hope of release. They have concluded that death could not be worse than the living hell they are enduring. Attorney Julia Tarver’s client Abdul-Rahman told her “of his determination to die and said that, ‘now, after four years in captivity, life and death are the same,'” Tarver wrote in a sworn declaration filed in federal district court.

Yousef Al Shehri, another of Tarver’s clients, was taken prisoner by the US military while he was still a juvenile. Both clients described being force-fed by the guards. Tarver wrote in her declaration: “Yousef was the second detainee to have an NG [nasal gastric] tube inserted into his nose and pushed all the way down his throat and into his stomach, a procedure which caused him great pain. Yousef was given no anesthesia or sedative for the procedure; instead, two soldiers restrained him – one holding his chin while the other held him back by his hair, and a medical staff member forcefully inserted the tube in his nose and down his throat. Much blood came out of his nose. Yousef said he could not speak for two days after the procedure; he said he felt like a piece of metal was inside of him. He said he could not sleep because of the severe pain.”

When Yousef and others “vomited up blood, the soldiers mocked and cursed at them, and taunted them with statements like ‘look what your religion has brought you,'” Tarver wrote.

After two weeks of this treatment, the forced feeding stopped for five days. Then, guards began to insert larger, thicker tubes into the detainees’ noses. “These large tubes,” Tarver wrote, “the thickness of a finger, [Yousef] estimated – were viewed by the detainees as objects of torture. They were forcibly shoved up the detainees’ noses and down into their stomachs. Again, no anesthesia or sedative was provided to alleviate the obvious trauma of the procedure. When the tube was removed, it was even more painful, and blood came gushing out of him. He fainted, and several of the other detainees also lost consciousness . They were told that this tube would be inserted and removed twice a day every day until the hunger strike ended. Yousef described the pain as ‘unbearable.'”

Both of Tarver’s clients independently identified physicians as participants in this procedure. “The guards took NG tubes from one detainee, and with no sanitization whatsoever, re-inserted it into the nose of a different detainee. When these tubes were re-inserted, the detainees could see the blood and stomach bile from other detainees remaining on the tubes,” Tarver wrote in her declaration.

The UN commission confirmed that “doctors and other health professionals are participating in force-feeding detainees.” It cites the Declarations of Tokyo and Malta, the World Medical Association, and the American Medical Association, which prohibit doctors from participating in force-feeding a detainee, provided the detainee is capable of understanding the consequences of refusing food.

International Committee of the Red Cross guidelines state: “Doctors should never be party to actual coercive feeding. Such actions can be considered a form of torture and under no circumstances should doctors participate in them on the pretext of saving the hunger striker’s life.”

The Bush administration is force-feeding the hunger strikers for political reasons. If any of the Guantánamo prisoners dies as a result of the hunger strike, it would be embarrassing to the Bush administration, which claims it treats the detainees “humanely.”

The Human Rights Commission called on the US government to ensure that the authorities at Guantánamo Bay do not force-feed any detainee who is capable of forming a rational judgement and is aware of the consequences of refusing food. “The United States Government should invite independent health professionals to monitor hunger strikers, in a manner consistent with international ethical standards, throughout the hunger strike,” the commission recommended.

In its report, the commission also recommended that the US government “close the Guantánamo Bay detention facilities without further delay. Until the closure, and possible transfer of detainees to pre-trial detention facilities on United States territory, the Government should refrain from any practice amounting to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment .”

The commission further said that “the United States Government should ensure that all allegations of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment are thoroughly investigated by an independent authority, and that all persons found to have perpetrated, ordered, tolerated or condoned such practices, up to the highest level of military and political command, are brought to justice.”

Not surprisingly, the Bush administration rejected the commission’s report, saying that the rapporteurs who prepared it did not interview people at the prison camp. The commission relied on interviews with former detainees, public documents, media repots, lawyers and questions answered by the US government. The Bush administration invited the rapporteurs to visit the Guantánamo camp, but refused to allow them to speak with the prisoners.

The overwhelming majority of the prisoners our government is holding at Guantánamo are not terrorists or jihadists. Many were picked up in Afghanistan and other countries and sold to the US military by bounty hunters. Of the roughly 500 men there, only 9 have been designated for trial on criminal charges.

The US government’s treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo is an international travesty and a national disgrace.