NAMIBIA – (MintPress) – At least 28 prisoners are engaged in an ongoing hunger strike at the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), officials said Monday. Reports of prisoners being force-fed have raised questions about military ethics and a possible shift back to the inhumane treatment of prisoners reported at Gitmo several years back.
Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the Naval Base prison in Cuba, said the military is force-feeding 10 prisoners to prevent dangerous weight loss. Durand said three prisoners were already hospitalized for dehydration as a result of the hunger strike.
While military officials have reported the number of official hunger strikers in the twenties, lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees believe the number is much higher, possibly including the majority of the facility’s 166 prisoners.
On March 14, more than 40 lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel, demanding he immediately address the underlying causes behind the ongoing hunger strike that began February 6.
“According to medical experts, irreversible cognitive impairment and physiological damage such as loss of hearing, blindness, and hemorrhage may begin to occur by the 40th day of a hunger strike, and death follows thereafter,” wrote the lawyers.
In the letter, lawyers expressed frustration after previous correspondence was ignored by the Commander and Staff Judge Advocate of Gitmo. “We would think officials charged with the care of detainees would consider these events urgent and gravely concerning; instead, JTF-GTMO officials have yet to offer any response other than to brush aside the reports by detainee counsel as ‘falsehoods,’” they said.
The current hunger strike is believed to have been caused by widespread searches of detainees’ Qurans and the confiscation of other personal items, including family letters and photographs and legal mail.
“We also understand that these searches occurred against a background of increasingly regressive practices at the prison taking place in recent months, which our clients have described as a return to an older regime at Guantanamo that was widely identified with the mistreatment of detainees” wrote detainees’ representatives.
“Indeed, the conditions being reported by the men appear to be a significant departure from the way in which the prison has operated over the past several years.”
According to the The Associated Press, military officials say there has been no change in search tactics at Guantanamo Bay and the hunger strike is an attempt to attract media coverage. Detainees, some who have been held for nearly 11 years, remain frustrated and hopeless with no prospects of release or trial.
Questionable legality of force-feeding
Detainees have utilized hunger strikes to protest prison conditions and the lack of due process given to prisoners since shortly after Guantanamo’s inception in 2002. The largest protest to hit Gitmo back in 2005 included roughly 131 prisoners at its peak. To stop the protests from getting out of control, U.S. military officials force-fed detainees through plastic tubes — the same controversial force-feeding practices are likely being used against today’s hunger strikers.
The World Medical Association’s (WMA) 1975 Tokyo Declaration prohibits the participation of doctors in the practice of torture. According to the declaration, force-feeding of hunger strikers is considered to be a form of torture, thereby prohibiting doctors’ involvement in the practice.
While deaths of hunger strikers in Ireland, South Africa, and other countries led the WMA to write the 1992 Madrid Declaration, outlining the role of doctors in caring for hunger strikers, the document still explicitly prohibits doctors from actively force-feeding a hunger striker.
As George J. Annas, J.D., M.P.H., explained in the New England Journal of Medicine amid controversy surrounding the military’s 2006 force-feeding activities, detainees were subjected to the use of an “emergency restraint chair” — described as “a padded cell on wheels — in order to break the hunger strike.
U.S. military officials have said they will not permit anyone to “fast to death” at Guantanamo Bay because of concerns about the consequences of international propaganda. Annas says this rationale is less persuasive since the first three suicides by hanging at Guantanamo in June 2006 included former hunger strikers, one of which had been repeatedly subjected to the emergency restraint chair.
“Prevention of the deaths of incompetent prisoners is a laudable medical goal,” wrote Annas. “The use of emergency restraint chairs for force-feeding, however, can never be ethically, legally, or medically justified — even in the case of an incompetent suicidal prisoner whose competence was determined by a qualified psychiatrist.”
According to Annas, “A prisoner who needs to be forcibly restrained in this device for force-feeding is almost certainly strong enough to be in little or no health danger from continuing a fast. The primary justification for the use of this device for force-feeding seems to be punishment rather than medical care.”
The use of medical intervention as punishment is against international treaties, medical ethics and U.S. constitutional law.
During a 2009 incident of forced feeding at Guantanamo, the ACLU said in a letter to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “Force-feeding is universally considered to be a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment … We respectfully and urgently request that you immediately order the prison camps commander to cease all force-feeding of detainees who are capable of forming a rational judgment and are aware of the consequences of refusing food.”
The military has openly acknowledged subjecting 10 active hunger strikers to forced-feeding at Guantanamo since February. General John Kelly, the commanding general responsible for Guantanamo, said “[They] present themselves daily, calmly, in a totally cooperative way, to be fed through a tube.”
Little information has been released about the current force-feeding tactics and whether emergency restraint chairs are being used. However, if the military handles the current hunger strike in a similar manner to those of the past 11 years, human rights groups will likely be raising voices very soon.
Conditions not likely to improve
President Obama swore to shut down Guantanamo Bay when he took office in 2008. Seventy-one detainees were transferred from Gitmo to their home or third countries during Obama’s first two years in office. Over the past three years, however, no one has been transferred from Guantanamo in spite of interagency task force recommendations for several dozen detainee transfers.
The president has been unable to keep his promise to close the prison. Obama established a “periodic review” process in 2011 for long-held detainees who have not been charged, convicted or designated for transfer. No periodic review board hearings have yet been announced.
Obama did not mention Guantanamo in his January inaugural speech or his February state-of-the-union address — a clear sign that his previous enthusiasm for closing the prison is gone.
The State Department office in charge of resettling prisoners and closing Guantanamo was officially shut down in January.
According to General John Kelly, the detainees “had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed.” Kelly told a congressional committee in Washington, “They were devastated apparently … when the president backed off.”
Adding another barrier to prisoners’ rights and due process, the only civilian flight still operating to and from the base has been ordered to stop all flights to Guantanamo Bay no later than May 1, meaning lawyers, journalists and activists will only be able to access the prison aboard a military flight with permission from the Pentagon.
Since 2002, only one major trial has emerged from the prison. There are currently 166 men being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. As further proof of the indefinite existence of Gitmo, the U.S. Southern Command submitted a request to the House Armed Services Committee last week for $150-$170 million to build new facilities at Guantanamo, including $49 million to build a new barracks for “high value detainees.”
The current hunger strike will not lead to the closing of Guantanamo Bay. If nothing is done to address the demands of the ongoing hunger strikers, however, the result will be more controversial force-feeding or death.
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