Lawyers for Guantanamo detainee Tarek El-Sawah, an admitted al-Qaeda explosives trainer held at the facility for over 11 years, are arguing that he should be released because of his serious obesity-related ailments. While at Guantanamo, the 55 year-old El-Sawah nearly doubled his weight, at one point reaching 420 pounds. His lawyers argue that he could die at any time; he is diabetic, has trouble breathing and walking, and has difficulty staying alert during meetings. They maintain that he faces the very real possibility of not making it out of Guantanamo alive.
Obesity is in no way a new problem at Guantanamo. The Center for Policy & Research first highlighted Guantanamo’s obesity epidemic in our 2011 report “The Guantanamo Diet: Actual Facts About Detainee Weight Changes,” in which we analyzed weight data of hundreds of detainees. In doing so, we discovered that Guantanamo’s obesity problem should be more appropriately characterized as an “obesity and emaciation problem.” The weight of Guantanamo detainees tends to fluctuate wildly during their detention, a serious issue that will likely have major implications on the long-term health of detainees. It is not uncommon for detainees to transition from a classification of “obese” or “overweight” to “underweight” within a matter of months. In fact, nearly 50% of detainees have been classified as “overweight” at some point during their detention.
There are several possible explanations to the dramatic weight fluctuations of detainees; food is often used as a reward during interrogations, additionally, it is common for detainees to engage in hunger striking to draw attention to their mistreatment and re-gain autonomy and a voice during their detention.
Whether or not his lawyers’ motions arguing for his release are successful, Tarek El-Sawah’s health struggles highlight the long-term effects of prolonged detention at Guantanamo. El-Sawah was not obese when he arrived at the facility; he had no control in his diet or lifestyle in his eleven years of detention, and his obesity-induced ailments are nearly entirely the fault of the U.S. Now, not only will his experiences at Guantanamo haunt him for the rest of his life, they will likely play a role in prematurely ending his life.
Kelly Ann Taddonio, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research