U.S. military officials transport a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in April 2006
A TIME Investigation: The Supreme Court handed the prisoners at Gitmo
a victory, but authorities there continue to use harsh methods to break one
of their most common methods of protest — the hunger strike
The prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, won a major victory this week when the
Supreme Court struck down the Bush administration's planned military tribunals.
But for many prisoners at the detention facility, the protests haven't stopped.
Hunger strikes persist, in what Guantanamo commander Rear Adm. Harry Harris, Jr.
has called "asymmetric warfare" — a means to attract attention
to their increasingly controversial detention. As a result, the camp's administrators
have sought to keep prisoners alive at all cost — because a prisoner's death
(as the U.S. found out three weeks ago, when three Gitmo inmates committed suicide)
can be a major embarrassment for the U.S. and add fuel to widespread demands for
the facility to be shut down.
Civil-liberties advocates point out that Guantanamo's 460 inmates have few
other means to make their voices heard, given that most have been detained for
more than four years without even being charged with a crime. Indeed, though
the U.S. has condemned the hunger strikers at Gitmo, just last year the White
House hailed a hunger-striking Iranian dissident for showing "that he is
willing to die for his right to express his opinion."
At Gitmo, however, dead prisoners are something the U.S. military wishes devoutly
to avoid. So force-feeding has been standard policy at the camp ever since hunger
strikes began in early 2002. The facility's top physicians have also told TIME
that prisoners who resist are subjected to especially harsh methods. In one
case, according to medical records obtained by TIME, a 20-year old named Yusuf
al-Shehri, jailed since he was 16, was regularly strapped into a specially designed
feeding chair that immobilizes the body at the legs, arms, shoulders and head.
Then a plastic tube that is 50% larger, and more painful to insert, than the
commonly used variety was inserted up through his nose and down his throat,
carrying a nutritional formula into his stomach.
Thousands of people, of course, endure some form of voluntary intra-nasal feeding
every day in hospital settings. But when force-feeding is involuntary and the
recipient is in a state of high anxiety, the muscles tense up and the procedure
can trigger nausea, bleeding, diarrhea and vomiting. "We are humane and
compassionate,"; Guantanamo commander Harris told TIME, "but if we
tell a detainee to do something, we expect the detainee to do it." As a
note scrawled in al-Shehri's medical records put it: "[The prisoner] was
informed that dying is not permitted."
Before this year, the feeding chair — marketed as a "padded cell
on wheels" by its Iowa manfacturer — was evidently used sparingly.
In comments several months ago, SOUTHCOM commander Gen. Bantz Craddock, who
oversees Gitmo, joked that at least hunger strikers got to choose the color
of their feeding tube (yellow was a favorite), and the flavor of the lozenges
used to soothe thoats irritated by the feeding tubes. "Look, they get choices,"
Craddock said at the time. "And that's part of the problem." At the
peak of a protest last fall, 131 protesters, or more than 25%, were on hunger
But in January, say lawyers for the prisoners and other critics of conditions
there, camp overseers finally got fed up with protesters undermining camp discipline
and overtaxing the medical staff, who often had to spend 15 hours a day feeding
obstreperous inmates. Dr. Ronald Sollock, the camp's chief physician, told TIME
bluntly that gentler force-feeding techniques of the past were a"failure."
He says that without being strapped down, some inmates would try to pull out
their nasal tubes, and even strike medical personnel. Worse, some continued
to lose weight, by forcing themselves to vomit after being force-fed."We
had to take steps to prevent that, but we only do what is medically necessary
in a humane and compassionate manner," says Sollock.
The tougher stance on feeding did have an effect on prisoners' willingness
to go on hunger strikes."A lot of detainees said, 'I don't want to put
up with this. This is too much of a hassle,'" says Craddock. Asked whether
the new methods represented an"effective deterrent" to hunger striking,
Officially, force-feeding at Gitmo is done with a tube 3mm. (or about .1 in.)
across, the same size used in American hospitals. In a sworn statement last
year, Gitmo's top physician at the time, Dr. John Edmondson, noted that"smaller
tubes which remained in the patient for longer periods were more comfortable
[and] easier to manage for medical personnel."
Al-Shehri's medical records, however, document the use of the larger tubes,
which experts say have no medical purpose in this context. Al-Shehri's lawyer
has also filed court documents citing lesions and bleeding caused when guards
held him by the chin and hair, strapped down, as a medical staffer"forcefully
inserted the tube in his nose and down his throat" The lawyer also charges
that al-Sherhri was subject to verbal and religious abuse during force-feeding,
asserting that the tubes"were viewed by the detainees as objects of torture."
The records also show that instead of leaving the tube in place to avoid the
possible trauma of repeated insertions, al-Shehri had his introduced and withdrawn
at each of his two daily feedings.
And this leads to another problem. According to al-Shehri's records and Gitmo
doctors, a typical feeding lasts about two hours, with the inmate left in the
restraint chair for roughly 45 minutes afterward. During the feeding period,
the prisoner will receive as much as 1.5 liters of formula, which, in the case
of hunger strikers, can be more than their stomachs can comfortably hold. This
can produce what is euphemistically called "dumping syndrome," an
uncomfortable, even painful bout of nausea, vomiting, bloating, diarrhea, and
shortness of breath. And those are precisely the symptoms that al-Shehri and
many other force-fed prisoners have reported to their lawyers.
In March, as a result of these allegations, more than 250 medical professionals
signed an open letter to the British medical journal The Lancet, demanding an
end to force-feeding. They cited the code of ethics of the American Medical
Association and the World Medical Association, both of which condemn the force-feeding
of prisoners as an assault on human dignity — so long as they're capable
of making an informed decision not to eat. But that's the conundrum: How do
you know what is an informed decision at Gitmo? Are detainees there, who are
imprisoned in an isolated environment far from their families for an indefinite
period, capable of making a rational and autonomous choice to starve themselves?
The code of ethics has been put to the test several times in the past, most
notably during the 1980s, when several Irish Republican Army prisoners staged
hunger strikes in British prisons. A handful died, and the episode was seen
as evidence of Margaret Thatcher's toughness. At Gitmo, however, the death of
a prisoner could ignite riots in the Muslim world. In that context, the Pentagon
believes that keeping detainees alive at all costs is very much in the nation's
It's equally in the prisoners' interests to have someone die. According to
Col Mike Bumgarner, who oversees the detention camps on a day-to-day basis,
several prisoners have told him of a"vision, or a dream — implicitly
a message from God — that if three detainees die it will attract enough
attention so that they will all get out of Guantanamo." It needn't be by
starvation: according to newly declassified docouments, two prisoners, one of
whom was al-Shehri, tried to commit suicide on May 18 by swallowing hoarded
anti-anxiety medication. Those attempts triggered a search, which in turn led
to the most serious rioting in the history of Camp Delta. And on May 29, yet
another round of hunger strikes began. It started with 75 prisoners, rose to
89 a few days later, and then suddenly began to fade away. Recent communications
by Gitmo inmates with their lawyers, and obtained by TIME, indicate that harsh
force-feeding methods were used to end the hunger strikes. The military has
offered no explanation for the drop-off in hunger strikers.
Bumgarner has said the prisoners' objective is to push the number of strikers
above 100, as they did last fall. But additional medical personnel are ready
to be shipped in to force-feed them if they do. "We used to over-react,
and the detainees saw that we got worried if they were not eating," he
says."Now we have a system. I tell them, 'Have at it. If you want to have
460 hunger strikers, we'll get 460 doctors in here to take care of you.' They
will not succeed."
Yet hunger strikers have already won a measure of success. In part because
of their protests, and the attention focused on Guantanamo, the U.S. is facing
growing criticism — from both allies and enemies — for the rules
of detention at the camp. Now the Supreme Court's Hamdan decision effectively
grants prisoners at least some of their longstanding demands, including more
rights at trial. All the same, most of them are unlikely to be released soon.
Indeed, authorities are currently constructing a new, state-of-the-art, $30
million prison at Guantanamo, where they plan to consolidate many of the camp's
maximum-security inmates. Harris argues the camp will be needed for the forseeable
future, and that refusing to eat is not a cry for help, but a ploy drawn from
the al-Qaeda playbook calculated to attract media attention and force the U.S.
government to back down."The will to resist of these detainees is high,'
says Harris."They are waging their war, their jihad against America, and
we just have to stop them."
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