Human rights organizations are asking Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to order troops to abandon the practice of force-feeding prisoners at Guantánamo, a move that could permit them starve to death if they choose.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Victims of Torture, Human Rights Watch and 17 other groups wrote the Pentagon on Monday, hours after the Qatar-based Al Jazeera website posted the prison’s 30-page forced-feeding procedures with the headline "military document lays bare the brutality of force-feeding.”
The letter called Guantánamo’s force-feeding process “inherently cruel, inhuman, and degrading.”
“We urgently request that you order the immediate and permanent cessation of all force-feeding of Guantánamo prisoners who are competent and capable of forming a rational judgment as to the consequences of refusing food,” they wrote.
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The letter also asked Hagel to allow “independent medical professionals” access to the prison to “review and monitor the status of hunger-striking prisoners in a manner consistent with international ethical standards.”
A surgeon, Navy Capt. Daryl K. Daniels, took charge of the medical team on Friday, according to an announcement in the base newsletter. It said he got his medical degree from Yale in 1991 and joined the Navy after doing a residency in general surgery at the University of New Mexico in 1996.
As of Tuesday, the U.S. military counted 100 of the 166 captives there as hunger strikers. It said 29 prisoners were being force-fed, five of them at the detention center hospital.
Guantánamo earlier called in reinforcements and now has about 140 Navy doctors, nurses and medics called corpsmen working at the prison complex, enough to handle the current caseload, said Army Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for the Southern Command, which supervises the prison.
The Defense Department had no comment Tuesday on whether Hagel had read the letter.
“The Department will reply directly to the letter in the form of direct correspondence,” said Marine Lt. Col. Jeff Pool, a Pentagon spokesman. “The Department does not respond to correspondence via the press.”
On Monday, the al Jazeera news channel put a spotlight on the forced-feeding practices by posting the portion of the military’s so-called Standard Operating Procedures, or SOPs, that instruct on how to strap a captive into a restraint chair and pump cans of nutritional supplement into his stomach via a tube snaked up his nose.
The document provides elaborate instructions to the Army guards and Navy medical staff, including a recommendation that the captive not be restrained to the chair for more than two hours to achieve a “feeding” that “can be completed comfortably over 20 to 30 minutes.”
It gives a nurse authority to order a soldier to wash the hands of a detainee brought in shackles to the restraint chair with feces on his hands.
And it reflects two “talking points” that military medical staff have repeatedly told members of the media visiting the prison medical facilities.
• A captive can request olive oil rather than a “sterile surgical lubricant” or “viscous lidocaine” to lubricate his nostril before the Navy medic snakes the feeding tube up his nose.
• A long-term hunger striker who cooperates and comes to a guard on command is rewarded with “single-point leg restraint” rather than the full body shackle into the restraint chair. The procedures specify the language of the command, “It is time to feed.”
It makes no mention of the Guantánamo prison practice of doing forced feeds at night during the Ramadan holy month, when faithful Muslims fast by day.
The document did reveal that medical staff place a mask over the face of hunger strikers during tube feedings, a detail that was not mentioned during previous media visits to the prison hospital. Monday, the prison released a new photo of its hospital feeding display alongside a model restraint chair with a surgical mask added to it.
It also lays out elaborate procedures for how medical and guard staff will handle a captive who resists the feedings by either trying to bite the nurse or bite the nasogastric feeding tube, once snaked up his nostril through the back of his throat.
“If a detainee is actively attempting to turn his head to bite the tube between the nose to the [enteral feeding] bag, the RN will affix the tube with tape to the midline of the detainee’s nose and extend it upwards, affixing it with tape to the detainee’s forehead,” it said.
At times, the document calls the captive receiving a forced feeding a “patient.” Mostly it calls him a “detainee.”
It was adopted March 5, about a month after the detainees claim they had begun a widespread hunger strike inside the prison to protest a particularly aggressive guard search of their Qurans.
Military spokesmen denied that a hunger strike was under way and said the prison treats the holy book with respect. The portion entitled “Clinical Protocol for the Evaluation, Resuscitation, and Feeding of Detainees on Hunger Strike” appeared to anticipate what the captives’ lawyer said already occurred.
“In event of a mass hunger strike, isolating hunger striking patients from each other is vital to prevent them from achieving solidarity,” it said.
“Given the inability to isolate patients in the [detention hospital] because of the physical structure of the building,” it added, a hunger striker can get intravenous fluid treatment for 24 hours at the prison hospital “followed by transfer back to Camp 5 to begin enteral feeding in an environment of single cell operations.”
Since then, guards stormed inside the communal camp where prisoners had covered up the surveillance cameras in their cells, put all the once cooperative captives under single-cell lockdown and systematically added them to the hunger strike rolls.