A government attorney announced Monday that the U.S. military has issued a wheelchair to a long-term hunger striker to transport him to his Guantánamo Bay forced-feedings — as a federal judge opened a rare hearing scrutinizing healthcare at the controversial Pentagon prison.
Justice Department attorney Andrew Warden announced the change in prison-camp protocols at the opening of a two- to three-day hearing examining cleared captive Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s treatment as an on-again, off-again hunger striker since 2007.
Warden also defended the medical treatment of the 43-year-old Syrian captive as “thoughtful, attentive and high-quality” across a dozen years at the U.S. Navy base prison camp.
Dhiab’s attorney, Eric Lewis, painted a far grimmer picture for U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler. He brandished a size 10 feeding tube and accused Guantánamo’s Army guards of delivering the man to Navy healthcare providers “trussed up like an animal.”
“Mr. Dhiab does not want to die,” he told the judge. “He wants to be treated like a human being.”
Lewis accused prison officials of using a tackle-and-shackle technique called a “Forced Cell Extraction” and denying a wheelchair to the captive who complains of chronic back pain as punishment for engaging in the hunger strike despite his “right to peacefully protest.”
Dhiab, who has been cleared for release for years, refuses food to protest his “indefinite detention,” Lewis said.
Although Uruguay has agreed to resettle Dhiab, the transfer itself has been stalled first inside the Obama administration, now by the would-be host country until after this month’s presidential election. Meantime, Dhiab’s lawyers want Kessler to wade into the treatment issue and exercise unusual civilian court oversight of the Pentagon prison holding 149 war-on-terror detainees.
She overruled a Justice Department petition to close the hearing on national security grounds and opened the session Monday morning by surveying a crowded spectators’ gallery and declaring, “It’s always nice to see a full courtroom.”
Warden disclosed in court that U.S. soldiers last took Dhiab to a forced-feeding using the tackle-and-shackle technique in mid-July. He also said the 6-foot-5 captive awaiting resettlement in Uruguay was weighed at 152 pounds on Thursday.
When he was weighed in at the base in August 2002, months after Pakistani security forces picked him up in Lahore and handed him over to the U.S. military, he weighed 179.9 pounds.
Dhiab’s lawyers want the judge to order the prison to stop shackling their client into a restraint chair by all four limbs with his head immobilized during forced feedings, and to order a halt of the use of the tackle-and-shackle technique if he refuses to walk to the feedings.
The military appeared to moot one issue before court began. Warden said that the Navy medical team at the prison has written Dhiab a prescription, valid until February, for the wheelchair. Warden also defended the security measures used by the prison, saying that Dhiab had kicked prison staff, hurled urine and feces at them, and used vulgar language.
Two independent doctors who examined Dhiab and his medical records criticized the possibility that the guard force would withdraw the wheelchair and other forms of assistance in a punitive fashion.
“It looks like medical care is being withheld because of disciplinary status, and that should never happen,” testified Sondra Crosby, a Boston University physician who examined Dhiab last month. “It feels punitive.”
The doctors said that the Navy medical staff at the prison had failed to do sufficient diagnostic testing to determine the source of Dhiab’s complaints of chronic back pain and perhaps paralysis. Both said his spine should be studied by an MRI, although the military chose not to bring one to Guantánamo — and added that his undiagnosed condition was likely exacerbated by his forced-cell-extractions and time shackled in the restraint chair.
Lewis, the detainee’s attorney, described the procedure this way for the court:
“He has been dragged out of his cell, trussed up like an animal, secured tightly to what the detainees universally called ‘the torture chair,’ had a 110-centimeter tube shoved up his nose, force-fed in the chair, then had the tube pulled out, forced from the chair to the ground and then carried back to his cell, put face down on a cement floor, the restraints removed with guards straddling his injured back.”
Prison camp staff defend the procedures as safe, humane and necessary to protect themselves and a population of 149 captives brought to Guantánamo as terror suspects or candidates for interrogation — 79 of them now, like Dhiab, cleared for transfer with security arrangements.
A Justice Department lawyer, Ronald Wiltsie, invoked a sworn statement by a guard force commander, Army Col. John Bogdan, that the restraint chair was “padded, comfortable and felt like a normal chair.”
To which retired Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist who last month spent 14 hours with Dhiab, replied that Bogdan was fit, a colonel and able to do physical exercise. He argued that the prison needs to offer “individualized” care to patients like Dhiab to “get him in the best possible health so he can be transferred.”
A chunk of the testimony centered on Dhiab’s mental health. The Syrian told the doctors that he suspected Middle East spirits, called Jinns, were a source of his pain.
Crosby, an expert on treating victims of torture, recommended that Dhiab not be treated by the prison’s medical staff and instead receive an independent multi-discipline medical team to treat his “complex case,” which she suspected might include some “psychosomatic” illness.
“He knows that when he’s in pain there’s a psychological dimension to it,” added Xenakis, calling the Jinns a metaphor for his undiagnosed illnesses.
Mental health officials at Guantánamo have yet to settle on a diagnosis, according to a Sept. 19, 2013 evaluation shown in court that suggested Dhiab had a Depressive Disorder and possibly a Conversion Disorder or Cultural Bound Syndrome or was Malingering, the term for faking illness to game the system.
Kessler, the judge, expressed surprise that malingering was considered simultaneously with a diagnosis of the depressive disorder.
The two doctors, testifying as experts, said separately that they believed that Dhiab was experiencing genuine pain — something the military medical staff apparently agreed with last month. A document displayed in court showed a prison doctor prescribed Tylenol and an additional painkiller at regular intervals three times a day.
The hearing continues in closed session Tuesday morning, apparently to discuss forced-feeding videos the public can’t see until faces of the guard force are blurred and audio is scrubbed of everyone’s voice but Dhiab’s. Kessler said she would reopen the court around 11 a.m. for more unclassified testimony.
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From attorney Eric Lewis’ opening:
“Mr. Dhiab has been on hunger strike at various intervals for more than seven years. It is the only way that he has peacefully to protest his indefinite detention. It is the only way he has to express his autonomy and his essential human dignity.
“In return, he has been dragged out of his cell, trussed up like an animal, secured tightly to what the detainees universally called the torture chair, had a 110-centimeter tube shoved up his nose, force fed in the chair, then had the tube pulled out, forced from the chair to the ground and then carried back to his cell, put face down on a cement floor, the restraints removed with guards straddling his injured back. Day after day, month after month, year after year. Mr. Dhiab does not want to die. He wants to be treated like a human being.”