Nation & World

Rapper’s graphic video puts spotlight on Guantánamo forced-feeding at Ramadan

Rapper Yasiin Bey, formerly Mos Def, is shown in this video still before being force-fed.
Rapper Yasiin Bey, formerly Mos Def, is shown in this video still before being force-fed. REPRIEVE UK

In a brutal video that’s gone viral, rapper-actor Yasiin Bey, a k a Mos Def, is clad in an orange jumpsuit and recoils against restraints as a doctor tries to put a feeding tube up his nose. He resists. He sobs. He wriggles out of his restraints.

It’s the latest production by a London-based law firm determined to get its captive clients out of Guantánamo. But there’s a problem, says Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, the Pentagon spokesman for Guantánamo policy, “It doesn’t comport with our procedures.”

Breasseale, who’s never actually seen a forced-feeding at Guantánamo and earlier in his career served as the U.S. Army’s envoy to Hollywood, was at first reluctant to offer a review. “We don’t provide commentary on theatrical productions,” he said.

But, unlike other members of the U.S. military who wouldn’t comment, he called it “a clever bit of cause marketing by Reprieve and the Guardian,” the British newspaper that first posted it.

That’s the point. Reprieve, the London based non-profit form that catapulted Guantánamo’s hunger strike onto The New York Times’ op-ed page with a prisoner’s first-person account, has captured the public’s imagination with the native New York rapper’s dramatization of a captive’s forced-feeding.

The lawyers released the video on the eve of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, and, as it happens, hours before a U.S. District Court judge called Guantánamo’s tube-feeding practice “painful, humiliating and degrading.” The judge, Gladys Kessler, said she was powerless to act on the request of Syrian captive Jihad Diyab, 41, to stop the Pentagon from force-feeding him.

Reprieve represents Diyab and 16 other prisoners at Guantánamo, where the prison said 106 captives were on hunger strike Tuesday —45 of them listed for tube feedings.

Lawyers for Diyab and three other captives asked the federal court in Washington, D.C., to stop the feedings. Kessler said the person with the power to do it is President Barack Obama.

At the White House Tuesday, spokesman Jay Carney defended the policy.

“The president said in April, we do not want these individuals to die,” he said.

Carney added that Obama “understands that this is a challenging situation,” then referred reporters to the Justice and Defense Departments for “specifics about the hunger strikers and then the litigation itself.”

In London, Reprieve attorney Cori Crider said the video wracked up 2 million hits in the first day. It also stole the thunder of the military’s latest bid to ease tensions at the prison of 166 captives staffed by about 2,000 employees — Navy nurses, Army guards, contract linguists and librarians and a little mentioned intelligence unit.

At 6 p.m. Monday, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the military issued a “Ramadan pardon,” excusing some disciplinary offenses and restoring “some privileges lost” for this, the 12th Ramadan at the prison camps in Cuba for most of Guantánamo’s captives.

About 40 detainees, none of them hunger strikers, were released from nearly 90 days of lockdown, up to 22 hours daily in their solitary cells. The prison was letting some captives eat and pray together during Ramadan, provided they voluntarily went to their solitary cells to be locked inside for six hours a night.

Others could eat and pray together at times but were being locked in their cells 12 to 18 hours a day.

In a concession to Islam’s month-long holiday, those being force-fed would get their tube feedings after sunset and before dawn.

“We have sufficient staff on hand to conduct enteral feeds at night,” Durand said.

Last year at this time, the vast majority of captives passed a quiet Ramadan collectively. Since then, a captive committed suicide by overdose inside a maximum-security cell and the military cracked down — searching Qurans, seizing electronic devices, books and food supplies suddenly considered contraband.

The hunger strike soon followed, and Reprieve, which does not charge its clients, began a campaign to address what Crider called “an empathy problem.”

In April, she turned a telephone call with Yemeni captive Samir Mukbel into a column about the agony of endless detention and force-feeding. The New York Times published it under the headline “Gitmo is Killing Me.”

U.S. military medical staff had for years described the procedure as safe, similar to that done to hospital patients in the U.S., and humane, modeled after U.S. Bureau of Prisons policy — with no captive’s voice to contest it. Mukbel, approved years ago for conditional release, offered a counterpoint.

Reporters who visit the prison have so far been forbidden to see the twice-daily tube feedings, to test military claims that most captives go willingly and sometimes agreeably chug a can of Ensure instead. News photographers can’t show a captive’s face as a condition of access to the camps. Forced-feeding became a distant, daily numerical report from Cuba.

Enter Bey, a New Yorker who is also Muslim. He donned the orange jumpsuit of a detainee in June, said Crider, to make the four-minute video in a single day in London.

It shows a British doctor in turquoise scrubs lubricating a tube and then attempting to insert it into Bey’s nostril, the doctor urging him to “relax.” Instead, Bey tenses up as another doctor and unseen actors in black T-shirts try to restrain him.

In a portion of the video that military sources say could not happen at Guantánamo today, the actor gets loose from his restraints. Bey wails and sobs, and calls it quits.

“It is me,” he said. “Please stop. I can’t do it.”

Efforts to reach the rapper failed Tuesday. Crider said he was in Morocco, unavailable for comment.

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