Force-Feeding Condemned by Top Congressmen

As the controversy surrounding force-feeding tactics at Guantanamo Bay continues, two top members of the U.S. Senate have spoken out in favor of ending the practice.  Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein called on President Obama to stop force-feeding prisoners partaking in hunger strikes in protest of their status at Guantanamo.  This comes just days after a U.S. District Court Judge handed down a ruling stating that federal courts have no authority to shut down the force-feeding program, but agreeing with detainees and their attorneys that the practice is troubling and may violate human rights.  The decision put the burden solely on President Obama to address the situation, and it looks like he will be receiving pressure from Congress as well.

Senators Durbin and Feinstein did imply that there may be cases where force-feeding is medically necessary, but stated that the military does not observe proper guidelines and safeguards even in those cases.  This was not Senator Feinstein’s first attempt at convincing the government to stop force-feeding.  Last month she wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel after a visit to Guantanamo in which she called hunger strikes a “long-known form of non-violent protest aimed at bringing attention to a cause, rather than an attempt of suicide.”  This seems to imply that Feinstein’s views are in line with others who believe that force-feeding is inhumane in instances where protests do not threaten Guantanamo personnel and involve mentally competent detainees.

The White House turned to its usual response, stating that it does not want any detainees to die of malnutrition while in detention.  So it’s ok to hold them indefinitely with no hope of release even though we lack the necessary evidence to press charges, but it’s not ok for them to protest a largely unreasonable policy in a manner that poses no threat to the United States or its military personnel.  Got it.

The Senators also called on President Obama to make good on his long overdue promise to close Guantanamo Bay altogether, which was just another drop in the proverbial ocean of similar requests made since Obama took office.  As sad as it is, it’s almost laughable at this point to think that another request to close Guantanamo will make a difference with so many members of Congress still in favor of keeping it open.  But I guess it’s nice to know that there are still politicians out there who believe that it can be accomplished.

Do I think this latest effort to stop force-feeding and close Guantanamo will make any difference?  Not really.  Like I’ve said before, closing Guantanamo will be a long, painful process and there are still too many people who want to keep it open.  It’s not a groundbreaking prediction but I don’t think Guantanamo Bay will be closed any time in the near future.  I think our short-term goal needs to be putting an end to force-feeding.  If you believe Monday’s decision, we should be able to sidestep much of the political process and leave it up to President Obama if we focus on that.  That doesn’t mean we should abandon efforts to close the base, but we need to focus on the immediate problems that we can fix right now.

In a related story, two hunger-strikers dropped out of the over 4 month-long protest for unspecified reasons, bringing the total number down to 104.  However, 45 are still being force-fed on a daily basis.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Judge Claims No Jurisdiction Over Force-Feeding at Guantanamo

Yesterday, multiple news outlets reported that despite efforts by defense attorneys for Guantanamo Bay detainees, federal courts do not have the power to stop Guantanamo personnel from force-feeding the detainees.  U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler handed down a quick decision stating that federal courts simply do not have the jurisdiction or authority to order the military to stop using force-feeding tactics in response to hunger strikes implemented by detainees to protest their detention status at Gitmo.

The decision was handed down quickly in part because the court and attorneys on both sides wanted an answer before the beginning of Ramadan, the traditional Muslim holy month that requires Muslims to fast during daylight hours.  One of the main concerns was that force-feeding detainees during fasting hours would violate this core tenant of the Islamic religion.  As I noted when I first wrote about this lawsuit, in the past the military has agreed not to force-feed detainees during these hours so that detainees could observe their holy month.  In fact, in the response to the suit filed by the pentagon, the government stated that barring any emergency situations, they would agree to only force-feed detainees after sunset.  So even though we’re going to keep shoving tubes into detainees’ (that we have already admitted are not being charged with crimes) orifices while they are strapped down to chairs, we’re at least going to let them maintain the last shred of religious dignity they might have left.  Take from that what you will.

The basis for the lawsuit was not just religious.  Detainees and human rights advocates have long claimed that force-feeding is akin to torture, especially when implemented on detainees who are of sound mind and have made conscious decisions to partake in the hunger strikes.  The legal brief submitted by defense attorneys called the process “dishonorable” and “degrading.”

Although Judge Kessler admitted that the courts could not rule on the issue, she made her personal opinion known in her decision by echoing many of the above concerns, calling the force-feeding process “painful” and “degrading.”  She not-so-subtly called on the Obama administration to take action where the courts could not and shut down force-feeding itself.  Judge Kessler singled out President Obama for a speech given back on May 23rd, which some of you may recall:

“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.”

This coming from the same president that promised to close down Guantanamo Bay when he was first elected, and yet here we are.  I understand that it’s not that simple and that there’s a lot of politics behind the decision to keep it open.  There are a lot of politicians (and members of the public) who want to keep Guantanamo open and it’s not exactly President Obama’s unilateral decision to make.  But his administration has a chance to make a statement here and restore some level of civility to a system that’s drawn an awful lot of criticism for alleged human rights violations in recent years.  Shutting down force-feeding isn’t going to erase those incidents, but it could go a long way toward easing the tension surrounding Guantanamo Bay, at least in the short-term.  Most importantly, it would show the world that we DO respect human rights.  And as of late the world has plenty of reasons to question whether we actually do.

Sidenote – My blogging compatriots have gone into detail on what exactly the force-feeding process entails, and you can read about it here.  Seeing it in print is disturbing enough, but if you still want a better picture of the process, you’re in luck.  Over the weekend, Yasiin Bey, better known as hip-hop artist Mos Def, took the plunge and agreed to undergo the force-feeding procedure in London.  I don’t recommend clicking that link if you’re squeamish.  Keep in mind that there are 106 prisoners partaking in the hunger strikes at the moment, and 45 of them undergo this 2-hour process twice a day.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Detainees Turn to Courts to Stop Force-Feeding

Despite prior rulings that federal courts have no jurisdiction over the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, attorneys for detainees at the detention center have now turned to the court system for help in putting a stop to force-feeding at the GTMO Detention Camp.  Over the weekend, defense attorneys filed a motion with a federal district court in Washington DC requesting an immediate hearing on the legality of tactics used by military personnel at Guantanamo to keep hunger-striking prisoners alive.  In the 30-page motion, defense attorney Jon B. Eisenberg stated, “There cannot be a legitimate penological interest in force-feeding petitioners (detainees) to prolong their indefinite detention.”

The military continues to defend the use of force-feeding as a necessary step to maintain order at Guantanamo, but the defense attorneys and detainees argue that it is a direct violation of human rights.  Detainee Nabil Hadjarab claims that he is taking part in the hunger strikes to protest his detention despite the fact that no formal charges have been lodged against him.  Hadjarab stated, “I am doing this because I want to know my destiny.  I cannot abide not knowing anymore.”  Force-feeding at Guantanamo has been criticized for months now but this is one of the first instances where the detainee’s defense counsel has turned to the courts for relief.

The motion specifically names four detainees, and there might be a reason for its timing.  The Islamic holy month of Ramadan starts next week, and any force-feeding that might occur during daytime hours could violate detainees’ religious beliefs.  Even if the motion is not presented to the court by next week, the detainees are seeking a temporary order that would prohibit guards from force-feeding them from sunup to sundown.  This would probably be granted as guards at Guantanamo have agreed in the past to only force-feed detainees after sundown in observance with Ramadan.

Even so, guards at Guantanamo are unlikely to change their ways without a specific court order.  Army Colonel Greg Julian stated, “Until we are told to do differently the practice will not change.”  I can understand that guards at Guantanamo are simply following orders.  They aren’t exactly in the best position.  They don’t get to make the call on whether or not the detainees are charged or released.  As for the overarching policy, I agree that it isn’t a good look to have detainees dying from malnutrition at Guantanamo.  But it isn’t much better to shove tubes into detainees’ stomachs in response to a protest that has a perfectly legitimate aim.

We aren’t talking about detainees with high intelligence value or detainees that have been charged with crimes.  I can see a better argument for force-feeding detainees in that category, even if it might still be a human rights violation.  We could at least justify it since keeping them alive might save more lives if they have information on any impending attacks.  Instead, we’re talking about men who have been told by the government that there are no charges against them due to lack of evidence, but they are still not allowed to leave Guantanamo Bay.  These are men who have made a conscious decision to protest a policy that many Americans don’t even like.  And if the courts put a stop to force-feeding it might force the government’s hand into making a decision as to their fate.

Either way, this has turned into an issue that the courts will now have to address.  And with the total number of hunger-strikers at 106 and the number of detainees being force-fed at 45, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next week or so.

Chris Whitten
Center for Policy and Research

GTMO Force-Feeding Kit

Image There has been significant media coverage of the GTMO hunger strikes over the past few weeks, and the latest updates report that 10 detainees are currently being force-fed by GTMO officials.  While official policy is to force-feed once a detainee’s weight drops low enough that it is a health risk and it is framed as a life-saving measure, force-feeding at GTMO is a decidedly unpleasant experience.

In a 2006 New York Times article, a former detainee describes the force-feeding process.  He says,

“The head is immobilized by a strap so it can’t be moved, their hands are cuffed to the chair and the legs are shackled,” he continues to say,

“They ask, ‘Are you going to eat or not?’ and if not, they insert the tube. People have been urinating and defecating on themselves in these feedings and vomiting and bleeding. They ask to be allowed to go to the bathroom, but they will not let them go. They have sometimes put diapers on them.”

“The tube” this detainee refers to is the thick feeding tube used to administer cans of Ensure to detainees through their nose.  Detainees describe this as an incredibly painful experience, with guards ignoring their protests and leaving them strapped into the feeding chair until they have ingested a sufficient amount of nutrition.  The process is intentionally painful and humiliating, in hopes that it will encourage the detainee to discontinue his hunger strike, and occurs several times per day until the detainee voluntarily eats a meal.

Kelly Ann Taddonio, Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

“Why the Guantanamo Bay Hunger Strikes Probably Won’t Work”

In a recent article published in The Atlantic entitled “Why the Guantanamo Bay Hunger Strikes Probably Won’t Work,” Olga Khazan argues that hunger strikes are only an effective form of protest if your cause is sympathetic to begin with.  Historically, says Khazan, hunger striking has been an effective means not just of obtaining immediate demands, but of shifting the political climate surrounding the issue.  

GTMO detainees, however, are not likely to reap these benefits.  As men whose names are synonymous with terrorism and political turmoil, they don’t fit the archetype of the sympathetic, politically popular hunger strikers whose protests are often successful.  Hunger strikes typically tend to occur in prison, and result in making the detainees’ captors look evil, soulless, and cruel.  However, when the public views those engaging in the hunger strikes as evil, un-American terrorists, it is almost certain that the detainees will not win the “sympathy vote” and accomplish any real change through their hunger striking.  

Arguably, history at Guantanamo has already proven Khazan’s point.  Guantanamo has been open for about eleven years, and the detention center has seen several major hunger strikes.  None of these hunger strikes have ever accomplished anything significant, aside from creating a health crisis at GTMO.  When the detainees are already viewed by the public as “bad people” it makes it incredibly difficult for them to elicit the type of sympathy needed to pressure the government into bringing about any significant changes at GTMO.  

Kelly Ann Taddonio, Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research