The Guardian: “Gitmo hunger strikes are a cry for help. Why is the US fighting back with secret torture?……..Force-feeding at Guantánamo shames America – not just in the bad old days of George W Bush, but today, in 2014. And you deserve to hear the truth, loud and clear.”
by Cori Crider, theguardian.com, Tuesday 30 September 2014
“Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent”: so goes the slogan of the world’s most famous offshore prison. It’s an Obama-era rebrand, a bid by Gitmo’s PR people to persuade Americans that today’s is a kinder, gentler Guantánamo Bay. There’s just one wrinkle: Gitmo is still dangerous, nasty, lawless and secretive – and the evidence just keeps piling up.
At the forefront of this war over the truth is the first-ever trial concerning the practice of force-feeding prisoners on hunger strike, due to start Monday. My client, Abu Wa’el Dhiab – a Syrian man who has never been charged, and indeed has been cleared to leave Guantánamo by the US government for more than five years – has been fighting for over a year to reform the way he and other hunger-strikers have been treated. He’s finally about to have his day in court.
But the Obama administration refuses to accept this unusual intrusion of justice into its island idyll. On Friday, US justice department attorneys filed a motion asking the court to hear all evidence in the trial entirely in closed court, save a short, anodyne opening statement from lawyers on both sides.
What we had planned to discuss in public is no secret – at least, not a legitimate one. Three expert witnesses would take the stand to talk openly about the gruesome effects of force-feeding on Abu Wa’el. A bioethicist, a torture physician and a psychiatrist who is also a retired Brigadier General would testify that force-feeding as currently practiced at Guantánamo Bay is punitive – that it is a transparent effort by prison authorities to break detainees’ will and stop them from hunger-striking. What force-feeding emphatically is not, these experts will say, is proper medical care. It is a gross violation of medical ethics. But if the government gets its way, throughout this testimony, the courtroom’s public gallery will be empty.
The craziest aspect of the government’s request to close down this trial is that one of our cleared experts, Dr Sondra Crosby, has already testified in public in one of the military commissions (the quasi-criminal but less-fair “trials”) at Gitmo. This April, she spoke, on camera and in detail, about the torture of a defendant – Abd al-Rahim Hussein Muhammad Abdah al-Nashiri – who is one of the three people the US government admits it waterboarded. That is a “top secret” case; if a doctor could talk about torture then, why can’t a doctor call the torture of a cleared inmate what it is today?
In a recent phone conversation with me from Guantánamo, Abu Wa’el offered his own view on the government’s motivations for keeping so much in this case so unnecessarily secret:
They want all of us to be invisible: the detainees, the kind people like the nurse who would not force-feed us, the people who could tell Americans the truth.
He was right. Since the start of the mass hunger strike last year and the start of our litigation, the government has thrown up obstacle after obstacle to keep the public from understanding what force-feeding at the base really looks like.
First, the Obama administration insisted there should be no trial of force-feeding at all, claiming the courts had no power to police abuses at the base. Then it prematurely declared the hunger strike “over” and announced that Department of Defense would no longer publish the total number of prisoners on hunger strike. Around the same time, the government even wiped the inconvenient term “hunger striker” from its lexicon: talk to a Pentagon spin doctor today, and you will find there is no such thing as a hunger strike, no such thing as force-feeding. Today there are only “noncompliant detainees” who engage in “non-religious long-term fasts” and must be “enterally fed”.
This is what the Pentagon refuses to say: twice a day, every day, it puts cleared hunger-strikers through abuse that would shock most Americans if they could but see it.
But testimony from a couple of experts is not the same as watching a tube go down a man’s throat, you might say. You might even ask: what is the government so afraid of?
Part of the answer lies in a cache of secret force-feeding videos. Earlier this year, we forced the government to give us a pile of tapes of Abu Wa’el being hauled from his cell by Guantánamo’s riot squad (the so-called “Forcible Cell Extraction” team) and strapped into a chair for force-feeding. Over the summer I watched the videos – 11 bleak hours of filmed abuse. Some of the images have burned into my brain in much the same way that, 10 years ago, the Abu Ghraib photos burned my mind, and perhaps yours.
The DoD is so nervous about this footage going public that I have been forbidden even to discuss it with other security-cleared lawyers representing other clients on hunger strike, with whom we were always previously trusted to discuss classified issues. The Pentagon doesn’t want you to get anywhere close to these images; the government doesn’t even really want you to hear in public from other people, like our security-cleared experts, who have seen what force-feeding looks like.
But those who have seen the tapes know the truth: what we do to hunger-strikers at Guantánamo shames America – not just in the bad old days of George W Bush, but today, in 2014.
Gitmo is not just a prison. It is a warehouse of the forgotten, run by a military that doesn’t have the faintest idea how to treat the sick souls of people held without charge for over a dozen years. The basic problem at the heart of our case is that the Obama administration refuses to see my client’s hunger strike as a peaceful, last-resort protest against more than a decade of injustice. Instead, it views his protest not as a cry of humanity, but as a disciplinary problem that must be stamped out.
The US government is wrong. Abu Wa’el Dhiab is starving himself because he feels he and other prisoners at Guantánamo have no other choice. And when we go to trial next week, and experts testify about what is really going on at the base, right now, in our name, they should be allowed to do it in public to the greatest possible extent. The truth about Gitmo should be heard loud and clear – “legal and transparent” – not just in a courtroom in Washington but all across the world.