Guantánamo

No court martial for nurse who refused to give forced-feeding at Guantánamo

A Navy doctor holds a feeding tube used to deliver a can of Ensure up the nose and down the back of the throat and into the stomach of a prison camp hunger striker on June 26, 2013 at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
A Navy doctor holds a feeding tube used to deliver a can of Ensure up the nose and down the back of the throat and into the stomach of a prison camp hunger striker on June 26, 2013 at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. GETTY IMAGES

A Navy commander has chosen not to court-martial a nurse who refused to conduct forced-feedings of hunger strikers this summer and has instead asked a board to determine whether the nurse should be allowed to stay in the U.S. Navy.

The nurse, a Navy lieutenant whose name has never been made public, reportedly turned conscientious objector before the Fourth of July after handling months of nasogastric feedings of prisoners shackled to a restraint chair.

He has insufficient years in service as an officer to qualify for retirement. At issue is whether what he did should end his Navy career.

“I can tell you right now that, after reviewing the investigation that was conducted in Guantánamo, I recommended that the officer be required to show cause for retention in the Navy. I chose not to do the court-martial route,” his commander, Navy Capt. Maureen Pennington, said Monday from Newport, Rhode Island.

Pennington is commanding officer of the Naval Health Clinic New England, which has more than 100 nurses working in a series of facilities in the region, including the man who made headlines by refusing to participate in the forced feedings.

Here, the prison has 139 Navy doctors, nurses and corpsmen assigned to care for Guantánamo’s 149 detainees — a staff that was increased over a year ago in response to the prison’s long-running hunger strike.

The administrative review, also known as a Board of Inquiry, keeps the circumstances of that episode secret. A military trial could have put a very public spotlight on both Guantánamo’s hunger-strike policy and how the military manages medical-ethics issues.

“It’s kind of out of my hands now. Ultimately the Secretary of the Navy will have the final say on this,” Pennington said. The review, which could last about nine months, entitles the nurse to get an attorney and call witnesses to a closed hearing to argue why he should be allowed to remain in the service.

So far, the only description of how the refusal occurred has come from an attorney for a detainee who said the nurse willingly took part in the process for several months but became disenchanted.

The prison spokesman confirmed there had been a refusal but gave no details.

One question the board might have to tackle is whether a medical professional should lose his or her career for disagreeing with Guantánamo’s hunger strike policy. Retired Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist, has said that private talks with the Pentagon’s medical leadership had produced promises that there would be no consequence for refusal — just like military doctors in the past could decline to conduct abortions for personal ethical reasons.

Last summer, as the hunger strike drew participation by more than 100 detainees, Xenakis in testimony at the U.S. Senate, called Guantánamo forced feedings “cruel and degrading” and a violation of medical ethics.

Follow @carolrosenberg on Twitter.

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