Conflict & Justice

As Ramadan begins, Gitmo force-feeding continues

As the sun set on Monday evening, the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan began — and more than 100 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay continued their hunger strikes. More than 40 of them are being force-fed.

On the same day a US judge rejected a plea from one detainee to block force-feeding procedures, though she acknowledged that the practice “appears to violate international law.” Some laws passed by Congress, said District Judge Gladys Kessler, thwart her ability to interfere with aspects of detention in the prison.

Kessler’s view and her request for President Obama to intervene in the practice of force-feeding prisoners is not uncommon. Dr. Arthur Caplan, New York University professor of bioethics and director of the Division of Medical Ethics, has testified in domestic cases that “people should not be force-fed and that prisoners retain the right to refuse medical interventions.”

“We have established, certainly in the United States, the right to refuse unwanted medical interventions,” Caplan said.

Still, with the support of many medical ethicists, human rights groups and medical rights groups like Physicians for Human Rights, Caplan added, the condemnation of force-feeding procedures “so far hasn’t really held up.”

The argument, in many cases, is instead that force-feeding is a necessary tactic in maintaining order among a population of protesting detainees.

“The argument that hunger strikes lead to disorder in prisons is weak, because they’re so difficult to do,” Caplan explained. “My arguments in the American courts have been turned down because, I don’t know about Guantanamo, but civil judges in the states where hunger strikes are taking place in prison tend to say it’s necessary to maintain order of the prison and takes priority. Hunger strikes can undermine the ability to maintain order, they can lead to unmanageable situations with other prisoners doing this, and so on, and that takes priority over individual rights to refuse interventions. But force-feeding someone against their will by poorly trained people is cruel, and in general hunger strikers are not trying to kill themselves, they’re trying to make political statements.”

Meanwhile, the watchdog group Reprieve has filed its own motion to end the “torture” of force-feeding, and produced a four and a half minute video featuring Yasiin Bey, formerly Mos Def, experiencing the procedure as detailed in the military instructions, which were part of a leaked document.

The video shows Yasiin Bey, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and bound by chains, being fastened to a chair. The procedure begins and a tube is inserted into his nose, which would then be guided down his throat and into his stomach. What start as moans of discomfort quickly turn to howling and grunting as Bey’s body contorts, rising from the seat in resistance, and causing more aids to assist in restraining him before the tube falls out of his nose. The video ends with Bey sobbing as he describes the burning sensation he experienced.

“It is incredibly brave of Yasiin Bey to have agreed to undergo this process, strapped in what my clients refer to as ‘the torture chair,’” said Ramzi Kassem, human rights lawyer and professor at CUNY School of Law. “The resulting video very powerfully illustrates just how accurate their phrase is as well as the horrifying and deliberately brutal nature of force-feeding at Guantanamo. Of course, my force-fed clients undergo this abuse twice a day, every day.”

Apart from the number of force-feeding procedures a prisoner experiences on any given day, there could be other differences between a detainee’s experience and that of Yasiin Bey, an elderly person, or someone who is physically unable to eat willingly.

“You think about force-feeding people in nursing homes and in hospitals and it doesn’t seem bad, but it’s not the same as when you’re struggling against it,” Caplan said. “When you have to be put in restraints, and when the equipment used isn’t, so to speak, personalized—that is they might be using big tubes to get the food in fast, because the amount of time they have to do it makes it harder to do… While I don’t think feeding tubes are ever anything other than medical interventions, it’s certainly a lot worse when you’re trying to do it on a resisting person who is restrained. And when you don't know what you're doing it can be bad.”

Just last week two of Kassem’s clients, one former prisoner and one current prisoner of Guantanamo Bay, released open letters to the media telling, in gruesome but necessary detail, of their experiences with forced-feeding.

The letters, which were translated from Arabic to English by Kassem, talk about permanent respiratory damage, chronic throat pain and nose bleeds.

“This is my call to the outside world from behind these rusty bars, in this monstrous cell,” began a letter by Abdelhadi Faraj, known as Prisoner Number 329 at Guantanamo, where he has been held since 2002, despite being cleared for release in 2010. “Does the world know what is happening in this prison?”

Hunger-striking elsewhere in the world:

In California: 30,000 prisoners refused breakfast and lunch yesterday in protest of the isolation policies that keep suspected gang affiliates in solitary confinement indefinitely, sometimes leading to decades in quarantine.

Among the demands of the inmates are education and rehabilitation programs, as well as the opportunity to place monthly phone calls. The apparent hunger strike was initiated by a small group of inmates at the Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California, but corrections policy is not to declare an official hunger strike until an inmate has missed nine meals.

This would not be the first mass hunger strike in California. The state most recently saw strikes in 2011, accompanied by reports of increasing suicide rates among inmates kept in seclusion for long periods. Corrections Spokesperson Terry Thornton told the Los Angeles Times “everything has been running smoothly,” despite the mealtime interruption.

In Syria: Female political prisoners in the Damascus Central Prison entered their ninth day of hunger strikes this morning in protest of their treatment.

The detainees have demanded that their right to fair trials be observed, as well as their rights to proper and adequate medical care and contact with family.

The Syrian Association for Human Rights released a statement expressing “extreme concern” for approximately 300 females—some pregnant or elderly, others suffering from skin or respiratory illnesses—living in inhumane conditions that failed to meet “even the basic international human rights standards for the treatment of prisoners, as stipulated by the United Nations.”

Al Jazeera reported that many are now using social media to show solidarity with the hunger strikers—some taking photos to Facebook or posts to Twitter. One translated tweet posted by @sh_sh6755 read “I am a prisoner, I am invisible. I am the forgotten, sleeping on the floor. I get sick, no one cares for me. I eat food refused by dogs. I don’t sleep from the overcrowding, don’t forget me brothers.”

In Israel: In response to reports that authorities at Guantanamo Bay have been force-feeding inmates during Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sun up to sun down, the US has invited officials from the Israeli Medical Association to present their methods for handling hunger strikers to American policy makers.

Israel’s own policies were written according to the 1975 Tokyo Declaration of the World Medical Association, which states that hunger strikers must not be force-fed against their will.

The Israeli policy was formulated following the hunger strikes of some Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons. Dr. Arthur Caplan said he is interested in the invitation and the new conversation between Israel and the US, but does not know what the motivation is.

“I think the Israelis have had some experience with this and with the issues of Ramadan and so on,” he said. “At the same time, it’s clearly an environment in which there is no reason to presume they want to be more tolerant of individual rights in prison over maintaining prison order than the American prisons have been.”