Why U.S. doesn't let detainees starve at Guantánamo Bay



•  Attorneys for the hunger strikers and the military agree that the men are drinking water but disagree on how many have shunned food for up to two months and whether the men are snacking on the side.

•  One detainee has been listed as a hunger striker since 2005 because, once on the list, a captive has to have affirmatively eaten nine meals in a row to get off. That man, identified in court papers as a Saudi, has compliantly gone twice a day to military clinic to get his nutritional supplement, according to the military. There medics pump a can of Ensure into his stomach by a tube inserted in his nose, aside from the occasions when he chugs the can on his own.

•  Military medical teams use a calculus of missed meals, reduced body weight and complicating health conditions to decide when to declare someone a hunger striker. More than 21 days as a prison camp defined “hunger striker” likely gets a captive a tube feeding, according to a Navy physician at the prison hospital who would not be named.

•  Detainees designated as hunger strikers generally consent to the tube feedings rather than being forcibly shackled into the restraint chair, according to detention center spokesman Navy Capt. Robert Durand. Or, as the prison’s top physician put it, “When it’s time to feed, they present.”

•  Passing out constitutes consent to a tube feeding, Durand said.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross says the organization disagrees with the United States over its practice of force-feeding captives at Guantánamo.

“There is a discrepancy between the position of the United States and the ICRC. That’s very much part of, a point on the agenda,” the Red Cross’ Peter Maurer told reporters a day after meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss the ongoing crisis at the prison camps in southeast Cuba. The Red Cross position, as is that of other international medical groups, is that when it comes to eating, prisoners have the right to choose their fate.

The U.S. advocacy group, Physicians for Human Rights, argues that force-feeding hunger strikers is a violation of medical ethics.

“If someone who is mentally competent expresses the wish not to be fed or hydrated, medical personnel are ethically obligated to accede to that person’s wishes,” said Dr. Vincent Iacopino, an expert with the rights group. “Under those circumstances, to go ahead and force-feed a person is not only an ethical violation but may rise to the level of torture or ill-treatment.”

The U.S. military says that the Navy medical staff has been systematically pumping nutritional supplements into the stomachs of detainees who will not eat on their own and are considered medically at risk.

During a March visit, a reporter asked the prison camp staff why they will not let the captives starve at Guantánamo Bay. Here are five replies.

•   It’s not humane. The motto of the 1,700-strong detention center staff at the prison of 166 captives is “Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent.” And the answer from an Army captain named John, the officer in charge of Guantánamo’s communal Camp 6, was that the military couldn’t let detainees starve themselves to death because “that would be inhumane. They can choose not to eat but we’re not going to let them starve.”

•   “First, do no harm” is the creed of medical professionals, and to let a captive starve is at odds with U.S. military medicine. A Navy lieutenant commander wearing a nameplate with the moniker Leonato put it this way: “We’re obligated to protect life. I signed on as a nurse not to carry a rifle but to keep people alive, render medical care. I’m here to deliver therapeutic care as a mental health professional.”

•   It’s un-American. “Allowing a detainee to harm himself is not only counter to our responsibilities under the laws of war, but is anathema to our values as Americans,” says Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, the Pentagon spokesman responsible for detention and legal issues. “Allowing a peacefully protesting detainee to harm himself by choosing to sit by while he starves himself to the point of endangering his life is not only a violation of the very code followed by civilized peoples everywhere, but it is the worst kind of victor’s justice: repugnant and wholly unacceptable.”

•   It looks bad. “It’s our job to take care of them, to feed them and take care of their needs,” says Zak, the Arab-American cultural advisor to the admiral in charge of the detention center, who like nearly everybody who works there grants interviews on condition that his full name not be published. “Otherwise they will say we killed them, let them die.”

•   It’s policy. That’s according to Navy Capt. Robert Durand, spokesman for the detention center where 56 captives could leave if Congressional restrictions on transfers were lifted and the U.S. could arrange safe repatriation or third-country resettlement agreements.

“We disagree with the ICRC opinion that they should be allowed to starve to death. That’s not the position of the government. I don’t know why that policy decision was made.”

Read more Guantánamo stories from the Miami Herald

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