A U.S. federal judge has urged President Barack Obama to directly address the issue of feeding hunger strikers against their will at the Guantanamo Bay prison, where more than 100 men are refusing food to protest their indefinite detention.
District Judge Gladys Kessler said Monday that “force-feedings are a painful, humiliating and degrading process.” The stinging critique of the practice came in a four-page opinion
dismissing the petition of Syrian detainee Jihad Dhiab to stop his forced feeding.
Kessler asserted she did not have the jurisdiction to respond to Dhiab’s request, but said Obama, as commander-in-chief, has the authority and power to do so.
The White House has not commented on the federal judge's suggestion that Obama address what's happening at Guantanamo.
In a May national security speech
, the president discussed the situation of feeding hunger-striking detainees against their will. “Is that the America we want to leave our children?” Obama asked. “Our sense of justice is stronger than that.”
Dhiab has been detained at Guantanamo Bay for 11 years, despite having been cleared for release to a third country in 2009. He asked for expedited consideration of his petition out of concern for his ability to observe Ramadan, which requires observers to fast from sunup to sundown. The Muslim holy month begins Monday evening.
A graphic reminder
Kessler’s rebuke came as the British human rights group Reprieve released a video
protesting the detainees' treatment. It shows rapper Yasiin Bey, known as Mos Def, undergoing the standard operating procedures for feeding hunger strikers at Guantanamo.
Of the 166 prisoners held at the U.S. naval base, 106 are refusing to eat. Forty-five of them are being fed a liquid meal replacement through a tube that snakes up their nasal cavity, into their throat, through the esophagus and into their stomach, according to the Defense Department.
In the video showing the practice, Bey, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, sits in a medical chair, his arms, legs and head restrained with straps and chains. Guards hold him down as he yells and squirms while a tube is inserted into his nose. White liquid drips from his nostrils as he pleads for the procedure to stop.
Defense Department spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale would not comment on what he called a “theatrical performance,” but said the Pentagon’s procedures match those practiced by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
He said the Guantanamo team is respectful of detainees’ Ramadan observances.
“We intend to only feed detainees outside of daylight hours, which we believe is a reasonable religious accommodation,” Breasseale said, adding that if there is an emergency situation, the prisoners would be fed during the day.
“The position of the government is that we will not allow detainees in our charge to commit suicide and that includes attempts to starve themselves to death,” he said.
Attorney David Remes, who has five clients being tube-fed at the U.S. detention center, says suicide isn’t the intention.
“They don’t want to die. They want to be released,” he said by telephone from Yemen, where he’s meeting a client's family.
Hunger strikes are not uncommon at Guantanamo, and Remes said in the past they’ve ended relatively quickly after guards addressed detainees’ concerns. This strike is different, he said. It began in February when prisoners got upset at the way guards were handling their Qurans, and has turned into something much bigger.
“I think it has become a more general cause focusing on, ‘This can’t go on forever. It just can’t go on forever,’” Remes said.
No end in sight
When President Obama took office in 2009, he signed an executive order to close Guantanamo, the world’s most expensive prison
, within a year. Four and half years later, and 11 years since it first opened, the detention center remains fully operational with no end in sight.
The Senate has voted against funding the prison’s closure. Discussions about where to house and try terrorism suspects are unresolved. And security and political obstacles are standing in the way of the 86 detainees who have been cleared for release or transfer to other countries.
Breasseale said the Defense Department is in a difficult situation - it didn’t “solicit the mission” to oversee Guantanamo, but it has to carry it out.
“We do not believe it’s in our best security interest. We believe it’s inefficient, as evidence by the cost," he said. "But until such time that we can close it, we will continue to care for the detainees in a way that’s humane and that matches our core values.”
How humane the care is may be debatable.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and several United Nations authorities have called for a stop
to the forced feedings. And the American Medical Association has told Defense Department officials that physicians participating in the forced feeding of people against their will is a violation of the core ethical values of the medical profession. The Code of Medical Ethics outlines the right of every competent patient to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions.
Breasseale said any prisoner who skips nine consecutive meals is considered to be hunger striking, and those who present certain health issues, like a drop in body mass index, receive meal replacements. The issues, and the time it takes to develop them, differ for each individual.
Among the 45 prisoners being fed by medical personnel, there are three personality types, Breasseale said. One accepts the tube. Another leaves guards with no choice but to force it up their nose. And the third opts out of tube-feeding altogether.
“Many of the detainees, once they get into the room, they choose to drink it right from the container. And they choose strawberry, vanilla or chocolate."
Breasseale acknowledged the number of hunger strikers has reached a new high. He attributed that to the “confluence of motivated habeaus council and clever cause marketing,” which has brought the prisoners’ situation to a level of public consciousness never seen before.
Remes said the prisoners’ new resolve is in response to what he described as humiliating treatment overseen by Colonel John Bogdan, known as Guantanamo's "warden." The attorney said Bogdan is trying to break the strikers by making life more difficult, including moving them from communal to isolation cells and requiring them to undergo genital searches if they want to phone or visit their lawyer.
“I don’t know what point [Bogdan is] making," Remes said, "because the number of force fed detainees has been rising, not falling.”
Clarification: A Guantanamo detainee must skip nine consecutive meals to be considered a hunger striker, not to be put on the enteral feeding list.