A Navy medical officer recently refused to force-feed a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. It is the first reported act of resistance to the regime of force-feeding since prisoners went on hunger strike eighteen months ago.
According to Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, Navy Captain Tom Gresback confirmed “a recent instance of a medical provider not willing to carry out the enteral feeding of a detainee.” He indicated the matter was now “in the hands of the individual’s leadership.”
The officer refused to force-feed Abu Wael Dhiab. Cori Crider of Reprieve was called and informed by Dhiab that the Navy medical officer had refused to force-feed prisoner just before the Fourth of July. The officer “disappeared from detention center duty.”
From Rosenberg’s report:
“Initially, he did carry out his orders and participate in the tube feedings,” Crider said he told her in a July 10 telephone call. “Once he saw with his own eyes that what he was told was contrary to what was actually taking place here, he decided he could not do it anymore.”
Crider said Dhiab quoted the nurse as announcing, “I have come to the decision that I refuse to participate in this criminal act.”
This conscientious objection is hugely significant. Dhiab, a Syrian prisoner cleared for release in 2010, is currently challenging the force-feeding policy in federal court.
Dhiab went on hunger strike and began to be subject to force-feeding on April 9, 2013. He joined with other prisoners, including Shaker Aamer, to challenge the practice so he could choose whether to eat or die at Guantanamo.
According to Dhiab, he does not object to being force-fed in order to keep him alive but he would like it to be “civilized.”
“Is it necessary for them to torture me? Is it necessary for them to choke me every day with the tube? Is it necessary for them to make my throat so swollen every day? Do I have to suffer every day? Is it necessary for them to put me on the torture chair in order to feed me?” Dhiab asks in a declaration to the court.
The declaration indicates one of the biggest causes of pain is “one of the straps for the restraint chair, which is cinched tightly against his stomach during force-feedings.” He suggests that under President George W. Bush he could ask to have the strap loosened and guards would loosen it. Now, guards refuse, and this causes his stomach to strain “against the strap as his stomach swells with the force-fed mixture of nutrient and water.”
At one point in June, Dhiab was beaten “so badly” by prison guards after they confiscated his wheelchair that he had “blood in his feces.” Fellow prisoner Ahmed Rabbani submitted an affidavit in which he recalled, “I heard him vomiting for much of the night.”
In the case, Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the force-feeding to be halted in May. However, days later, the judge allowed the government to resume force-feeding, as the government repeatedly claimed Dhiab would die if he was not force-fed.
However, the government has not been able to stop the judge from ordering the preservation of videos showing Dhiab being brutally force-fed. Crider said, “While I’m not allowed to discuss the contents of these videos, I can say that I had trouble sleeping after viewing them.”
The force-feeding policy violates standards of medical ethics. The World Medical Association considers such force-feeding to amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment that may amount to torture.
Dr. Gerald Thomson, a professor of medicine, has described the process:
…If you can imagine being a detainee and using refusal to eat as a form of protest, and then you are forced to eat, forced physically to eat by being strapped into a specially made chair, and restrained—having restraints put on your limbs, your arms, your legs, your body, your head, so that you cannot move, having a tube inserted into your throat that extends into your stomach, and you’re trying to resist that with the only muscles that are free in your throat—pain, discomfort, obviously. But in addition to that, food is then forced, in a liquid form, into your stomach. You’re kept in the chair for at least two hours, usually more than two hours, to prevent you from vomiting and undermining the force-feeding. You can’t go to the bathroom during that time. Your dignity is taken away…
Additionally, the act is remarkable because of how the military views hunger strikes as a kind of terrorist tactic being employed within Guantanamo by prisoners to achieve a propaganda victory. They do not accept that there is anything inhumane about the indefinite detention people like Dhiab continue to experience.
Jason Leopold reported for Al Jazeera America on a slide presentation that instructed military personnel to inform visitors at Guantanamo that hunger strikes are an “offensive tactic” to “discredit the US government.” All the detained prisoners are referred to as “terrorist trainers, terrorist financiers, bomb makers, Bin Laden bodyguards,” etc, even though over half have been cleared for release by the Obama administration.
The imposed media blackout on how many prisoners are currently on hunger strike in the facility is reflective of this position that any information on hunger strikes provided to the public by the military may reinforce their fight against the US government. This is why, according to doctors, the force-feeding regime developed has been geared toward breaking individuals involved in political protest.
No other medical officers are known to have conscientiously objected to force-feeding prisoners up to this point. Add to that the fact that officers within his unit will or may have already accused him of aiding terrorists, and it is clear that this is a profound act of courage that was undertaken.