A decade after the U.S. military started force-feeding hunger strikers at its prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, a federal judge has opened a peephole in the wall of secrecy surrounding the treatment of the 155 prisoners still languishing there.
On Wednesday morning, D.C. district court judge Gladys Kessler ordered the Obama administration to release videotapes and medical records detailing one prisoner’s alleged mistreatment over the past 13 months.
The prisoner, a Syrian civilian named Abu Wa'el Dhiab, has been held without charge since being rounded up by security forces during the early years of the Bush administration. He has since been cleared for release. But like dozens of other detainees, he’s still hostage to the domestic political concerns of Congress and the White House.
Many prisoners have challenged their detention, but Dhiab’s lawsuit focuses specifically on his treatment during captivity. His complaint is one of three filed this spring, after an appeals court gave the detainees legal standing to sue over their conditions. The lawsuits accuse the government of using shackles, restraint chairs and feeding tubes to terrorize those who use fasting as a form of peaceful protest.
Last week, Judge Kessler ordered a temporary restraining order barring the government from force-feeding Dhiab while she considered what evidence to admit. The new order goes a step further, requiring the government to release evidence it has long managed to suppress. “This is fantastic,” says Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve, the UK-based human rights charity that is representing Dhiab and two other plaintiffs. “It has taken 12 years, but it’s the first time a federal court has considered the actual conditions of peoples’ confinement.”
The military acknowledges using riot squads to “extract” hunger strikers from their cells and pin them into restraining chairs, where medics force tubes down their noses and pump feeding formula into their stomachs. The World Medical Association, the American Medical Association, various United Nations agencies and a coalition of health and human-rights organizations have all condemned the practice itself as torture, but the Obama administration defends it, saying the Guantánamo jailers have provided only “safe, humane and appropriate medical care” to the detainees.
Dhiab’s lawsuit doesn’t challenge force feeding per se. Like the other two filed this spring, it accuses the government of using a medical procedure as a weapon to break prisoners’ wills. Specifically, they say the jailers have violently extracted non-resistant strikers from their cells, and manipulated the feeding process to make it more painful and humiliating. By the prisoners’ accounts, military medics have punished them by forcing oversized tubes down their nostrils, by reinserting the tubes at every feeding rather than leaving them in place, and by forcing huge volumes of fluid into them at tremendous speed.
While denying those allegations, the government has refused, until now, to release evidence that could help confirm or disprove them.
When Dhiab’s lawyers requested medical records dating back to April 2013, the government’s lawyers offered only his 2014 records, saying Dhiab had failed to show that “medical records of prior enteral feeding will demonstrate the unlawfulness of any future enteral feeding” (emphasis added). That, of course, is a logical impossibility.
And when Dhiab’s team requested 136 videotapes that show him being rushed in his cell or force fed, Justice Department lawyers refused, saying the request was overly vague, overly broad and unfairly disruptive. “The video recordings are classified at the SECRET level,” they wrote. “Thus prior to any production, the videos would need to be reviewed in their entirety for national security information as well as other sensitive internal security and force protection information that would not be appropriate for disclosure.”
At Wednesday’s conference, Kessler granted Dhiab full access to the medical records, saying the request was “reasonable, specific, and directed at his own records.” She also ordered the government to give up some video evidence — not all 136 of the requested tapes, just the 34 that cover entire episodes, from the “forced cell extraction” by riot squads through the administration of the feeding formula by military medics. “Thirty-four videos should give us a pretty clear view of the process,” she said.
Will the public get to see what the Defense Department is doing in its name? Dhiab’s lawyers say they’ll release his medical records (with his consent) after independent physicians have evaluated them. But only the litigants will see the classified videos. After making digital copies, the Defense Department will fly them from Guantánamo to a secure facility in Washington for use in Dhiab’s case. Reprieve won’t be able to use them in other prisoners’ lawsuits. Each plaintiff will have to fight separately for access, unless a media organization or public-interest group sues successfully to make them public.
Still, with Kessler’s rulings, the Obama administration’s wall of secrecy is starting to crumble. The Justice Department expects to hand over the videos and medical records within two to three weeks. And though Kessler hasn’t formally extended the injunction protecting Dhiab from further forced feeding, lawyers say it will remain effective until she lifts it. They expect a formal ruling on that question this week.