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Court challenges Obama on Guantánamo conditions

Ruling orders the Defense Department to stop force-feeding a Syrian hunger striker and release records of alleged medical abuses.
In this photo reviewed by the U.S. military, detainees behind a mirrored one-way window are pictured in Camp VI detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, Nov. 20, 2013. (Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP)
In this photo reviewed by the U.S. military, detainees behind a mirrored one-way window are pictured in Camp VI detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, Nov. 20, 2013.

There may be hope yet for the Guantánamo detainees whose imprisonment, interrogation and abuse has shamed the United States for the past decade. On Friday night, a district court judge in Washington, D.C., ordered the Obama administration to stop force-feeding a Syrian prisoner who has refused food to protest his confinement.

The temporary restraining order lasts only until May 21, when the court will hold a status conference on the case. But the ruling has broad implications. It calls on the administration to release medical records and videotapes that will lay bare practices it has long sought to keep secret.

The Guantánamo detainees have been staging hunger strikes since 2005 to protest their conditions. Roughly half of the 155 men have been cleared for release, but Congress and the White House have continued to hold them for political reasons.

Last year, when more than 100 prisoners started refusing food, the Defense Department’s Guantánamo task force cracked down harshly. Besides enlisting medical personnel to shackle and force-feed noncompliant captives, the military imposed a news blackout and instituted secret new procedures to break the protesters’ will.

The crackdown has had an effect. By unofficial counts, only 17 detainees are still refusing to eat. But the holdouts achieved a legal breakthrough in February, when a Washington, D.C., appeals court ruled that the detainees had a right to sue the government over the conditions of their confinement.  

Abu Wa’el Dhiab, the subject of Friday night’s restraining order, is just one of several detainees who are now suing the government. Their accounts of their treatment, captured in court documents and in correspondence with their lawyers, recall the darkest days of the Bush administration.

“As I write now, [a detainee] is vomiting on the torture chair, having been brought there by the Forced Cell Extraction (FCE) team,” a Yemeni detainee named Emad Hassan wrote in a recent letter to his attorneys. “The nurse and corpsman have refused to stop the feed, or to slow the acceleration of the liquids.”

The Obama administration has long acknowledged forcing tubes down prisoners’ noses to pump liquid food into their stomachs. The procedure is excruciating even when performed carefully on a willing patient, and the international community has unequivocally condemned its use on competent prisoners. The World Medical Association, the American Medical Association, various United Nations agencies and a coalition of health and human-rights organizations have all declared force-feeding a human rights abuse.

The administration has brushed off those objections, telling MSNBC that the critics have no jurisdiction over the U.S. government and that “there is no international law requirement to allow detainees to starve themselves or harm themselves.”

But the new lawsuits aren’t about force-feeding per se. In a complaint filed in Washington, D.C.’s federal district court on March 11, Hassan’s lawyers accuse the Defense Department of using the force-feeding process “to inflict gratuitous pain and suffering on the detainees, in an effort to coerce them to give up their peaceful protest.”

“[Hassan] wishes to make clear that he is not seeking an injunction to permit him to continue his hunger strike until death,” his lawyers assert. “Rather, he is seeking a constitutional protocol that ensures he is not force-fed prematurely and is not subjected to methods of force-feeding that cause unnecessary pain and suffering.” 

Hassan, now 34, was a 22-year-old student, attending university in Pakistani, when security forces swept him up with other Arab men and turned him over to U.S. authorities in return for a bounty payment. He was cleared for release in 2009, having never been charged with any wrongdoing, but the government has yet to release him. He “vehemently and credibly asserts his innocence of any extremism or violent intentions against Americans or anyone else,” according to his legal complaint.

In the legal complaint and supporting documents, Hassan and his advocates detail a half-dozen practices they deem especially abusive. After a “forced cell extraction team” straps a fragile, 80-pound hunger striker into a restraint chair, medics reportedly use oversized nasogastric tubes to make the insertion more painful. And rather than leave the tubes in place for future feedings, they allegedly punish obstinate prisoners by reinserting the tubes daily.

The lawsuit also accuses the medical teams adding laxatives to the feeding formula. “This may cause detainees to defecate on themselves while still in the restraint chair,” the complaint alleges, “after which they are not given clean clothes.”

Worse yet, Hassan and others claim that the medics punish the strikers by pumping large doses of liquid through their bodies at high speed. “Twice each day,” according to the complaint, “nearly two-thirds of a gallon (or more) may be forced into a detainee in as little as 20 minutes.” In an affidavit supporting Hassan’s claim, Dr. Steven Miles, a prominent bioethicist, describes that as an “extraordinary departure from customary medical practice” and a well-known torture technique.

“It echoes a practice of torture called Water Cure that has been practiced since the Middle Ages,” Miles writes. “In Water Cure, the rapid infusion of high volumes of liquid into the stomach produces intense pain by distending the intestines” and “increases the risk that stomach contents will be regurgitated into the lungs.”

Rather than confirm or deny these practices, the Obama administration has argued that it doesn’t have to. But the new restraining order shatters that claim. While preparing the Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s case, the legal charity Reprieve got the Defense Department to acknowledge that it had collected at least 140 videotapes of his “forcible cell extractions” and forced feedings. Until now, the government has refused to release the videotapes, or even produce Dhiab’s medical records for the nine-month period between April 2013 and February 2014.

Last week, Reprieve asked the D.C. district court to keep the government from destroying its tapes (as the CIA did during the Bush administration). The Obama administration fought even that request, calling it a frivolous intrusion into national security affairs, but the court’s restraining order upholds it. In her restraining order, Judge Gladys Kessler orders the government to “preserve and maintain all relevant videotapes” and to stop force-feeding Dhiab until the May 21 status conference. At that conference, the government must tell the court how soon it can hand over the tapes and the prisoner’s medical records.

“This is a major crack in Guantanamo's years-long effort to oppress prisoners and to exercise total control over information about the prison,” Reprieve attorney Cori Crider said in a Friday night statement. “Dhiab is cleared for release and should have been returned to his family years ago. He is on hunger strike because he feels he has no other option left. We look forward to our full day in court to expose the appalling way Dhiab and others have been treated.”

If the tapes corroborate the prisoners’ stories, the nation is in for a shock to its conscience.