By Andy Worthington, May 20, 2014
On Friday, as I reported here, there was wonderful news from the District Court in Washington D.C., as Judge Gladys Kessler responded to an emergency motion submitted by a Syrian prisoner in Guantánamo, Abu Wa'el Dhiab, who is on a hunger strike and is being force-fed, and ordered the government to stop force-feeding him, and to preserve all videotapes showing his force-feeding.
The existence of the videos only came to light last week, in correspondence between the Justice Department and Jon B. Eisenberg, one of Abu Wa'el Dhiab's lawyers. In court documents, the lawyers described how the admission that videotapes exist came about "only under persistent questioning by Petitioners’ counsel during a protracted email exchange."
As well as recording the prisoners' force-feeding, the videos also record the "forcible cell extractions" (FCEs) undertaken by a team of guards in riot gear who violently move prisoners who refuse to leave their cells. Judge Kessler also ordered the government to preserve all videos of the "forcible cell extractions,"and also ordered the government to stop the FCEs.
The halt to the force-feeding and the FCEs is only until tomorrow (May 21), when Judge Kessler scheduled another hearing at which the government “should be prepared to say when it can turn over Mr. [Dhiab’s] medical records and the videotapes,” as the New York Times described it, but its importance should not be underrated.
This is the first time that a judge has directly intervened in the government's treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo. Last summer, Judge Kessler was one of two judges obliged to turn down a motion from Abu Wa'el Dhiab and three other men asking for their force-feeding to be halted, because of a prior ruling that appeared to prevent judges from interfering in the treatment of prisoners. However, that ruling was overturned in February by the appeals court (the D.C. Circuit Court), paving the way for Friday's momentous ruling.
Following Friday's ruling, two more hunger-striking prisoners have submitted motions to the District Court asking judges to order videotapes of their force-feeding to be preserved. On Monday, via the legal action charity Reprieve and Jon B. Eisenberg, Emad Hassan, a Yemeni, and Ahmad Rabbani (aka Mohammed Ahmad Ghulam Rabbani), a Pakistani, asked for videos of their force-feeding to be preserved.
See Emad Hassan's motion here, in which the lawyers explained that he sought a similar order to that issued by Judge Kessler in Abu Wa'el Dhiab's case, but "expanded to include photographs as well as videotapes."
A similar motion was submitted on Ahmad Rabbani's behalf, and also see Emad Hassan's motion seeking "an order requiring disclosure of still-secret protocols and SOPs [standard operating procedures] governing force-feeding and use of restraint chairs at Guantánamo Bay."
Emad Hassan is the prisoner who won the appeals court ruling in February, in which judges ruled that hunger-striking prisoners can challenge their force-feeding in a federal court -- and, more generally, ruled that judges have “the power to oversee complaints” by prisoners “about the conditions of their confinement,” as the New York Times described it.
In addition, Emad Hassan has been on a hunger strike since 2007, and has been force-fed for all that time, even though he was cleared for release in 2009. He is still held because of Congressional obstructions (only eased in December) and fears about the security situation in Yemen, which are disgraceful. 55 of the 75 prisoners cleared for release by President Obama's Guantánamo Review Task Force but still held are Yemenis, and it is long past time that the U.S.'s security concerns are no longer allowed to trump the need for these men to resume their lives.
For more on Emad Hassan, see "The Guantánamo Experiment: A Harrowing Letter by Yemeni Prisoner Emad Hassan" and "Long-Term Guantánamo Hunger Striker Emad Hassan Describes the Torture of Force-Feeding."
Less is publicly known about Ahmad Rabbani, a father of three who was held in CIA "black sites" (aka torture prisons) prior to his transfer to Guantánamo, with nine other men held in secret prisons, in September 2004. He was not cleared for release by the task force, but was, instead, recommended for prosecution. However, in April 2013 he was determined to be eligible for a Periodic Review Board, a process established last year to review the cases of 71 men -- 46 who had been designated for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial by the task force, and 25 others who had been recommended for prosecution.
Last May, during last year's prison-wide hunger strike, Ahmad Rabbani said that he had lost 60 pounds since the hunger strike began, and weighed just 107 pounds. "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]."
As Reprieve explained in a press release following the submission of the motions on behalf of Emad Hassan and Ahmad Rabbani:
[The] motions request the additional preservation and maintenance of videotapes and photographs relating to the treatment of Rabbani and Hassan, while Hassan also seeks disclosure of new, secret protocols for force-feeding hunger strikers. The motions state that the Department of Defense’s response to the petition so far has “left open the possibility that evidence had in fact been destroyed and suggests that the Department of Defense did not even know and had not yet made any effort to determine whether evidence had in fact been destroyed.”
Cori Crider, Reprieve's Strategic Director, said, "Inconvenient evidence has a bad habit of turning up ‘lost’ at the base, especially tapes just like these. This means there is no excuse for any ‘dog ate my homework’ moments when our clients’ challenge to force-feeding comes up in court."