The US government’s policy of abusive force-feeding at Guantánamo Bay is causing "agony" to prisoners, a federal judge said last night.
Ruling on the case of Abu Wa'el Dhiab – a Syrian cleared for release in 2009, and one of several hunger-striking prisoners currently asking the DC District Court to order a halt to the practice – Judge Gladys Kessler urged the authorities to find a compromise that would spare him “the agony of having the feeding tubes inserted and removed for each feeding” and “the pain and discomfort of the restraint chair.”
Last night’s order follows a landmark ruling earlier this week, in which Judge Kessler ordered the government to disclose 43 tapes of Dhiab’s force-feeding and 'forcible cell extractions' (FCE), in which a team of armed guards storms a prisoner's cell to 'subdue' him. She had also issued an order stating that, until the hearing on Wednesday, Mr Dhiab was not to be subjected to FCE, nor force-fed.
Yesterday Judge Kessler declined to extend the temporary restraining order in Mr Dhiab's case because of the risk that he would die, saying:
"The Court is now faced with an anguishing Hobson’s choice: reissue another Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”) despite the very real probability that Mr. Dhiab will die, because he has indicated a continuing desire to refuse to eat and/or drink liquids, or refuse to issue the TRO and allow the medical personnel on the scene to take the medical actions to keep Mr Dhiab alive, but at the possible cost of great pain and suffering."
The judge added: "Thanks to the intransigence of the Department of Defense, Mr Dhiab may well suffer unnecessary pain from certain enteral feeding practices and forcible cell extractions. However, the Court simply cannot let Mr Dhiab die."
She also indicated that today (May 23), she will issue an order for the "speedy exchange of discovery" of his force-feeding tapes and other important evidence, "in order to ensure that any suffering by Mr. Dhiab is not prolonged".
Because Judge Kessler has denied Mr. Dhiab's request to extend the restraining order, he will continue to be subjected to force-feeding while the case is underway. The wider issue of whether force-feeding at Guantánamo is illegal will be determined at a later hearing, once the tapes and other key evidence have been reviewed.
During a phone call yesterday afternoon with his attorneys at legal charity Reprieve, Mr Dhiab said he would be willing to be subjected to artificial nutrition if it were done humanely, at the prison’s hospital or with minimal painful intubation, as was the case during the first mass hunger strike at the prison in 2005 and 2006.
In an additional filing Thursday, another prisoner on hunger strike, Ahmad Rabbani, revealed how an improperly-inserted feeding tube had caused chest pains and led him to “vomit blood on himself three or four times” until he lost consciousness. Despite this, he was immediately led to the feeding chair by the FCE team.
On 23 May 2013, President Obama criticised the treatment of detainees on hunger strike at Guantánamo, saying:
"Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike [. . .] Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that."
Cori Crider, Strategic Director at Reprieve and one of Mr. Dhiab's attorneys, said: “The government’s refusal to make a basic commitment to treat Mr. Dhiab with decency tells you all you need to know about what is really going on at Gitmo. And where is the White House in all this? It's been a year since the President Obama said force-feeding detainees was not 'who we are' and pledged a fresh push to close the prison. Well, is he, the commander-in-chief of the people, abusing Mr. Dhiab, or is he not? He could put my cleared client on a plane today if he had the will to do it."
Jon B. Eisenberg, attorney for Mr Dhiab, said: "I am stunned that the Department of Defense refused to agree to the reasonable compromise Mr. Dhiab proposed, but the real responsibility lies at the door of President Obama, who utters lofty words but fails to stop the terrible things that are happening at Guantanamo Bay on his watch. Mr. Dhiab is about to suffer some awful abuse, but I have faith in his capacity to endure it."