By Andy Worthington
This is an account of life in Guantánamo, the reasons for the hunger strike, and the horrible reality of force feeding, as provided by Abu Wa'el Dhiab, a Syrian prisoner, whose motion calling for a judge to stop the government from force-feeding prisoners was reluctantly turned down this week.
Last week, lawyers for four hunger striking prisoners at Guantánamo asked a judge to order the government to stop their force-feeding and forced medication. The men -- Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, Ahmed Belbacha, and Nabil Hadjarab, both Algerians, and Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian -- are part of a prison-wide hunger strike that began in February 6, and that involves 106 of the remaining 166 prisoners according to the authorities, and at least 120 according to the prisoners.
45 of those men -- including Ahmed Belbacha and Nabil Hadjarab -- are being force-fed, and all four are amongst the 86 men (out of 166 prisoners in total) who were cleared for release by President Obama's inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in January 2010, but are still held.
This is partly because of onerous restrictions on the release of prisoners imposed by Congress, but President Obama promised to overcome these restrictions and to resume releasing prisoners in a major speech on national security issues on May 23, and he has the power to do so via a waiver in the legislation that allows him to bypass Congress if he regards it as being "in the national security interests of the United States."
Sadly, he has not yet exercised that option, and not a single prisoner has been released since his promise was made.
After the motion was submitted, by lawyers at the London-based legal action charity Reprieve, and Jon B. Eisenberg, an attorney in Oakland, California, we published the disturbing declaration made by Ahmed Belbacha during a phone conversation with Cori Crider, one of his lawyers and the Strategic Director of Reprieve.
To follow up, we're publishing the powerful declaration made by Abu Wa'el Dhiab, a 41-year old Syrian who had run a food import business with his family in Kabul before the 9/11 attacks, and who is one of the numerous prisoners in Guantánamo, past and present, to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the U.S. went fishing for Muslim prisoners.
Having escaped to Pakistan with his family, he was seized in Lahore, in one of the opportunistic raids that showed the Americans that Pakistan was on their side in the "war on terror," and that also secured millions of dollars for the Pakistani government, as former President Pervez Musharraf boasted in his autobiography in 2006.
I hope you will find Abu Wa'el Dhiab's declaration to be a compelling indictment of the injustice of Guantánamo. He is not currently being force-fed, because he has such severe back pain that he is confined to a wheelchair, but he has been force-fed during this long-running hunger strike, and his descriptions of it are harrowing.
Unfortunately, on Monday, Judge Gladys Kessler, in the District Court in Washington D.C., was obliged to turn down Mr. Dhiab's request for assistance. A ruling from 2009, tying Judge Kessler's hands, stipulates:
[N]o court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any other action against the United States or its agents relating to any aspect of the detention, transfer, treatment, trial, or conditions of confinement of an alien who is or was detained by the United States and has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant.
Although unable to stop the force-feeding, Judge Kessler nevertheless secured a moral victory, explaining that, although she was "constrained" to deny the application, she recognised that Mr. Dhiab "has set out in great detail in his papers what appears to be a consensus that force-feeding of prisoners violates Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which prohibits torture or cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment."
She also made a point of telling President Obama that the solution to these men's plight is in his hands. After stating, "Even though this Court is obligated to dismiss the Application for lack of jurisdiction, and therefore lacks any authority to rule on Petitioner's request, there is an individual who does have the authority to address the issue," she noted that, in his major speech on national security on May 23, President Obama had said "Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike … Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that."
She then explained:
Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution provides that "[t]he President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States ..." It would seem to follow, therefore, that the President of the United States, as Commander-in-Chief, has the authority -- and power -- to directly address the issue of force-feeding of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay.
In response, Jon Eisenberg "called Kessler’s decision 'remarkable' for its harsh assessment of the practice and the president," as the Washington Post described it. Eisenberg added, “A federal judge has tossed the ball in the president’s court. What is he going to do about it?”
To add to the pressure on President Obama, two senior Democratic Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin, have written to President Obama to follow up on Judge Kessler's complaints.
"We write to urge you to use your Presidential authority to end the unnecessary force-feedings of detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility," their letter begins, and it goes on to say:
We ... encourage you to direct the Department of Defense to stop conducting such large-scale force-feedings and, where force-feeding is medically necessary to save a detainee’s life, to observe the protections required at U.S. Bureau of Prisons facilities. It is our understanding that the U.S. federal prison guidelines for force-feedings include several safeguards and oversight mechanisms that are not in place at Guantánamo Bay.
They also wrote:
The growing problem of hunger strikes is due to the fact that many detainees have remained in legal limbo for more than a decade and have given up hope. This should be alarming to all of us, and it is imperative that the Administration outline a formal process to permanently close the Guantánamo facility as soon as possible. We look forward to continue working with you to achieve that end.
Moreover, Sens. Feinstein and Durbin also raised the force feeding issue on Tuesday at hearing to discuss the proposed confirmation of James Comey as the director of the FBI. On that occasion, Sen. Feinstein said, "We have 86 detainees who are cleared for transfer. They are no threat to this country. They have been adjudged so. And they have no place to go. So this is an expression of acute hopelessness in the forced feeding. In my view, this is inhumane. I'm very concerned about it, because it's the wrong thing to do."
Sen. Durbin added, "I can tell you that the members of the Navy and the Coast Guard who are part of it are at their wit's end as to what to do with these detainees, many of whom have been judged no threat to the United States, and have been held indefinitely. I think it's time for us to move the issue."
If President Obama needs any further impetus to act, he should really listen to the prisoners. This, for example, is what Abu Wa'el Dhiab had to say: "Why do you think I am on hunger strike in the first place? If I die, it is not because I killed myself. The U.S. government killed me. The people who tortured me, and kept me here for nearly twelve years with no charges, who torture us in the chair every day, and who abuse our families overseas, are to blame. If I die, it is they who are responsible. I am prepared to take this risk.”
I spoke to Mr. Dhiab by telephone on May 30, 2013. He instructed me that he wished to join the motion. Mr. Dhiab has been hunger-striking and had been force-fed, but explained to me on the call that because of severe pain in his back and ribs he was currently taking Ensure himself ‘so that the ERF team [the Extreme Reaction Force team, consisting of five or more armored individuals who punish any infringement of the rules with violence] do not come and strap me into the chair.’ He added that if the force-feeding were enjoined, he would resume the strike. I paraphrase his statements and instructions below.
Mr. Dhiab said the intrusive searching persists. “Now I don’t really care about what they do. I am willing to take off all my clothes. All I care about is my freedom, my dignity, and my honor, and my release.
“Sometimes I have met them completely naked, because the way they are treating us now is beyond dignity.
“But yes, they searched me once on my way to speak to you -- in the way that is now known all over the world.
“After what has happened in the past -- all the torture and humiliation -- I now hardly care. I would give them all my clothes if that is what it takes to make them pay attention.”
Instruction to counsel
Mr. Dhiab said: “I agree to join this motion. I want to participate and for the force-feeding and the forced medicating to be stopped. I want to protest the various kinds of torture they have used on me, and continue to use on me.”
He added: “This is my life. I should have the freedom to decide what I want to do with it. If I want to go on hunger strike, that is my business. They should never force feed us. I am on a peaceful protest. The U.S. government pretends that they give freedom to people, but in this way they are taking away my freedom. The whole world knows that we are protesting peacefully and they pretend they want to take care of our health. It is our health, to do with as we see fit.
“In fact, what the U.S. government is doing here makes me feel they have lost sight of their principles, of the high values that they claim to support. They are killing us anyway by holding us here. They are torturing us every day, supposedly to preserve our health.”
I explained he needed to understand that were he to win his motion and the tubes were taken out, he would have two choices: to eat, or to die. “Of course I know the consequences of refusing the food. And I will not eat. Why do you think I am on hunger strike in the first place? If I die, it is not because I killed myself. The U.S. government killed me. The people who tortured me, and kept me here for nearly twelve years with no charges, who torture us in the chair every day, and who abuse our families overseas, are to blame. If I die, it is they who are responsible. I am prepared to take this risk.”
Reasons for striking
“I am on hunger strike because I want a resolution to my case. Let me be frank, I have been here for so many years for no reason. I have been cleared for release under Obama’s administration. It is also claimed by lawyers and the government people here that there are third countries that are willing to take me and that the State Department are trying to find a host country for me to be resettled in.
“I want to see my wife and children after this captivity and take them to my chest. I want them to feel that their father is with them -- that they are not orphans, that their father is alive. I want and demand my stolen freedom and the peace that I am looking for. I want to leave to get medical treatment, and meet my dear wife and sons.
“We have given up the very things which are important: food and drink. And we have done so to get answers to our questions: What is our guilt and what is our crime? Are we going to see justice done in this place or will our painful fate remain unknown? Is it justice that awaits, or injustice with no reason but that our religion and beliefs differ? Where is the freedom to follow one’s religion which settles the heart? Where is freedom of speech?
“I am demanding my freedom. This is my right. I have the right to protest peacefully without punishment.”
Experience of force feeding
“What the authorities are doing is hurting me. They are abusing me under the pretext of assisting my health. My not eating is more merciful and easier than their treatment of me.
“Feeding takes place on a medical torture chair, and the way they fed me only hurts me more and added to my back pain.
“They put me in the chair in a savage way which did not occur in the days of Bush. They torture me in the name of feeding and fear for my health, even though I can’t breathe or move. The riot team holds me from every limb even when I am being fed. As for the one who is holding my head, he chokes me further.
“Straps and shackles are put in place and only the chains on the hands are released. Then all the straps are tightened forcefully so that I cannot move or breathe. In addition to this, there are six riot force members: one holding the head and putting his fingers on the throat and neck from below the chin with severe pressure, the second and third hold the hands, the fourth and fifth hold the legs, and then the nurse inserts the tube. If you are in pain it is natural for your head to move, so they shout ‘don't resist.’
“Sitting causes me severe back pain, as they know. Yet they feed me slowly so that I stay for as long as possible in the chair. This seems to be in order to pressure me. My weight has dropped and now fluctuates with the feeding and my illness.
“I suffer from general muscular pain, kidney pain, and severe burning in my bladder. My right leg is really weak and hurting me; my back is also hurting me a lot and as a result I am unable to sit."
On the call on May 30, 2013, he also explained that because of pain in his back and the terror of being ERFed to go to force-feeding he had started taking Ensure: “For several days now, I have severe pain in my back. I have problems with my neck and headaches. For several days I haven’t left the cell for feeding. I think this is still force- feeding, because if I don’t drink the Ensure they will bring the ERF team to get me out. So I have taken Ensure inside my cell and drink it.
“The reason I want to stop the ERF is because a while ago, they hurt a rib in my chest. After it healed, the ERF hurt the same place again. It happened over and over again and the injury gets worse. That is the reason I want to stop the ERFing to the feeding.
“I take Ensure every two or three days. Then the ERF force me to the chair of force-feeding. They ERF me twice outside the cell and they ERF me twice inside for feedings, and that hurt me very much.
“They do these things to us to pressure us to break the strike. They bring Ensure and tell me: ‘If you don’t take the Ensure, we’ll take you to the chair.’ They do this two times a day. By contrast, if I don’t take the Ensure, the ERF will come four times -- two times out, and two times in. The corpsman comes to make the ‘request’ that I take Ensure.
“The ERF never stops. They have been doing that since the beginning of my hunger strike. When I got very sick and I could not take it anymore, I decided to stay in my cell on Ensure for a couple of days. The pain has been too severe. I am not afraid of them and I am not avoiding them. It would be an honor to die.
“I am not the only one who suffers from the ERF. The mistreatment now is more severe than during Bush. Many of people are being ERFed -- some five times a day. The idea of this is to control us. Shaker Aamer from Britain is ERFed every time they give him water or food. They ERF him to and fro. Everybody is suffering from the abuse, control and humiliation.”
He reiterated that the only reason he was taking Ensure was to avoid being forced into the chair by the ERF or FCE team. If the force-feeding is enjoined, he will be able to resume his peaceful strike.
I asked whether he had heard of Reglan, and he stated he had not. He did indicate he felt ill after feedings, however.
“I get sick in the stomach when they feed me. The force-feeding makes me feel ill but so far I did not throw up. However, I haven’t moved my bowel for 18 days. They know this. I cannot take laxatives because of my kidney and bladder problems. Still, I think there is no doubt that they would give me medicine without asking me.
“I am sure they could be giving Reglan without telling us. They grind up medicine and mix it with the food. We know that. We do not trust them. The doctor who treats us is not a real doctor. A doctor renders humanitarian services. The doctor who watches his patient suffer and does nothing is no doctor. He is more criminal than the military authorities.”
He concluded our call by stating: “The issue now is: why am I here? We have heard all of this before. The lawyers have been with us for four years and still the government does not want to release us. They are just giving us anaesthesia to wait -- but there is no action.”