U.S. military officials at the Guantánamo Bay prison recently hardened their approach to hunger-striking prisoners, detainees have told their lawyers, and are allowing protesters to physically deteriorate beyond a point that previously prompted medical intervention to force-feed them.
Of the 41 men remaining at the prison, 10 are charged or convicted in the commissions system and the rest are being held in indefinite wartime detention without trial. That group includes about five men who have gone on hunger strikes to protest, detainee lawyers say.
For years, the military has forcibly fed chronic protesters when their weight dropped too much. Detainees who refuse to drink a nutritional supplement have been strapped into a restraint chair and had the supplement poured through their noses and into their stomachs via nasogastric tubes.
But around Sept. 19, guards stopped taking hunger-striking detainees to feeding stations, said Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer for the international human rights organization Reprieve. He said this change was reported by two Reprieve clients who had been subjected to tube feedings, and corroborated by several other clients.
David Remes, who represents another hunger striker, said his client had been on such a strike since August but had not been tube-fed despite losing significant weight. The client also told him that other protesters were no longer being force-fed.
Another prisoner on a lengthy hunger strike — who was hospitalized in July, though he eats a small amount of solid food each day to accompany pain medication — told his lawyer on Sept. 21 that a prison official told him a day earlier that he would not be forcibly tube-fed, either, according to the lawyer, Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
A fifth detainee whom other prisoners have identified as a hunger striker does not have a lawyer.
Navy Capt. John Robinson, a spokesman for the prison, said in a statement that an 11-year-old military policy permitting the involuntary feeding of hunger-striking detainees remained in effect. If medical officials decided tube-feeding was required to prevent death or serious self-harm, he said, “we would involuntarily enterally feed a detainee,” using the military’s preferred term for tube-feeding.
He declined to discuss specific cases. But Robinson also said that the military had not “involuntarily enterally fed a detainee in well over a year.” He would not elaborate on what it would mean to be voluntarily tube-fed, but Kebriaei said it was most likely a reference to detainees who passively submitted to the procedure rather than fighting guards.
Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a Pentagon spokesman, said that prison officials had decided to start to more rigorously enforce existing policy standards for what health conditions were sufficient to prompt force-feeding.
“In some instances in the past, attempts to provide detainees who claimed that they were on hunger strike with a measure of dignity through voluntary enteral feedings unintentionally created a situation that potentially encouraged future hunger strikes,” he said. “As a result, the pre-existing standard of medical necessity will be enforced in the future.”
But Remes interpreted the move as a new strategy to induce hunger strikers to stop. He accused the military of “playing chicken” by withholding both force-feeding and medical care until the detainee was in danger of organ damage or even death.
“The theory is that a detainee won’t want to reach that point and so will abandon his hunger strike,” he said. “Who will blink first?”
Any such hardening of the government’s approach could put the prisoners’ lawyers in an awkward position. Though they say they do not want their clients to die, many have also argued that force-feeding amounts to torture and violates medical ethics. For now, the three lawyers said they are seeking independent medical evaluations of their clients.
Remes said his client was protesting because he wanted the military to permit him to talk to his family twice a month rather than once. Kebriaei said her client was in a general state of despair and might be suffering from an untreated illness. Smith said his clients were protesting because they wanted to be given trials or released.