On the weekend of June 14/15, as I explained in an article last week, lawyers for Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian prisoner at Guantánamo who is on a hunger strike and being force-fed, began watching videos of their client’s force-feeding and "forcible cell extractions" — when prisoners are violently removed from their cells by a riot squad — which a US judge, District Judge Gladys Kessler, had ordered to be released to the lawyers a month ago. It is important to note that, previously, no lawyer for the prisoners has ever been allowed to view videotapes of force-feeding or violent cell extractions.
Prior to viewing the videos — at a "secure facility" run by the Pentagon in Virginia, where lawyers have to go to view any classified documentation related to their clients — Cori Crider of Reprieve,the legal action charity whose lawyers represent Dhiab, along with Jon B. Eisenberg in the US, described how she expected the content of the tapes "to be upsetting."
After viewing them, Crider delivered a powerful statement about how disturbing the tapes are. "While I’m not allowed to discuss the contents of these videos, I can say that I had trouble sleeping after viewing them," she said, adding, "I have no doubt that if President Obama forced himself to watch them, he would release my client tomorrow."
Alka Pradhan, an attorney with the newly-established Reprieve US, added, "These first-ever glimpses into Guantánamo Bay are extraordinarily disturbing. I challenge the President to look at the mounting evidence and take ownership of the abuse my client is enduring."
Sadly, there is no evidence that President Obama has any interest in watching the videos, even though Abu Wa’el Dhiab is a prime candidate for release from Guantánamo. The father of four, who is confined to a wheelchair as a result of his deteriorating health after 12 years in US custody, is one of 75 men (out of the remaining 149 prisoners still held) who were cleared for release from the prison in January 2010 by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force but who, unacceptably, are still held. (Three others were cleared for release in recent months by Periodic Review Boards).
Dhiab, who, like a handful of other cleared prisoners, cannot be safely repatriated, could nevertheless be released tomorrow, if President Obama wanted to free him, as President Mujica of Uruguay has offered him a new home, along with five other prisoners who cannot be safely repatriated — three more Syrians, the last Palestinian in the prison, and a Tunisian.
A new twist in the abuse of Abu Wa’el Dhiab
However, instead of releasing Dhiab, President Obama appears content to leave him at Guantánamo, where, as Reprieve noted last Monday (June 16), he is now being prohibited from attending the force-feeding sessions by wheelchair, and is being told that he must walk (which he cannot) or he will be violently extracted from his cell and taken there by the riot squad.
In an affidavit dated June 10, Mohammad Ahmad Ghulam Rabbani, a Pakistani prisoner who is also seeking the release of videotapes recording his force-feeding and "forcible cell extractions," and whose cell is opposite Dhiab’s, stated that, on June 9:
[T]he Gitmo staff came to Abu Wa’el and asked him if he was going to drink his Ensure [the nutritional drink used in force-feeding]. He pointed out that he had accepted his normal food. The staff said that was not enough so he would have to take his Ensure. Abu Wa’el was offended by this and said he was not going to agree to this. So the staff said he would be force fed by FCE ["forcible cell extraction"]. The staff person said he could agree to "walk." Abu Wa’el pointed out that he needed a wheelchair. The staff said to him no, it was "walk or FCE," so he was FCE’d.
Rabbani also explained that the authorities have ceased videotaping "forcible cell extractions" since Judge Kessler’s ruling. "As of last Wednesday, June 4th, 2014, the JTF-GTMO authorities have changed their rules and they no longer videotape FCE activities," he stated, adding, "This is [a] direct response to the judge’s order in Abu Wa’el’s case. It is a great shame as I would always describe loudly for the camera what was being done to me."
Rabbani also stated:
Yesterday evening, Abu Wa’el was FCE’d in a particularly harsh manner. The FCE team beat him so badly he had blood in his faeces. I heard him vomiting for much of the night.
Abu Wa’el tries to drink water, but it is hard for him. It was made easier by the herbal remedy his family sent him. However that had been confiscated from him for a time, until Sunday. He had it one day but when he was FCE’d last night it was taken from him again.
In response to this disturbing news, Reprieve filed an emergency application for a temporary restraining order.
Judge Kessler orders the release of more videotapes
In the meantime, Dhiab’s lawyers had another court appointment, on June 18, where Judge Kessler "ordered the Obama Administration to pass attorneys four more videotapes depicting the Forced Cell Extraction (FCE) of a disabled hunger-striker at Guantánamo Bay," as Reprieve described it, adding, "The latest tapes, recorded on May 29-30 this year, are thought to depict a new FCE team handling Syrian prisoner Abu Wa-el Dhiab especially roughly following a court order which temporarily halted his force-feeding. They are in addition to the 28 tapes viewed over the weekend by lawyers from legal non-profit Reprieve, which is representing Mr Dhiab. Of these, 18 have been filed to the court in support of Mr Dhiab’s case."
Cori Crider responded to Judge Kessler’s ruling by stating, "Bit by bit, tape by tape, this case is starting to reveal the ugly reality of Guantánamo. The only question is how long the President, who has the power to release this cleared man, will continue to look away and leave him to endure this pointless torment."
The media gets involved
On June 20, 16 media organizations got involved in the case. In a motion submitted to the court, they sought to unseal video evidence of the force-feeding and "forcible cell extractions," which, as Reprieve noted, "remain classified and have only been seen by Reprieve lawyers."
The 16 organizations are: The Hearst Corporation, ABC, Inc., The Associated Press, Bloomberg L.P., CBS Broadcasting, Inc., The Contently Foundation, Dow Jones & Company, Inc., First Look Media, Inc., Guardian US, The McClatchy Company, National Public Radio, Inc., The New York Times Company, Reuters, Tribune Publishing Company, LLC, USA TODAY, and The Washington Post.
Cori Crider responded to the media’s motion by stating, "It’s very welcome that the US media is defending Americans’ right to know what is being done in their name at Guantánamo, and a scandal that the Obama administration apparently wants to keep the truth from them. Mr. Dhiab and the rest of my clients have never received a trial — most have been cleared for release for years — yet their peaceful protest is being brutally repressed. The government keeps implying that the force-feeding tapes contain only uncontroversial material — so they ought to put up, and produce a public version of this footage, or shut up."
Lawyers seek to interview Col. Bogdan, Guantánamo’s contentious warden, plus medical personnel
On the evening of June 20, Reprieve and Jon Eisenberg, plus Eric Lewis of Lewis Baach PLLC, filed a motion asking Judge Kessler to allow them to question under oath Col. John Bogdan, the warden of Guantánamo, who is believed to be responsible for the decision to prevent Abu Wa’el Dhiab from attending force-feeding in his wheelchair. They also "request the sworn testimony of Guantánamo’s current and former head doctors about Mr. Dhiab’s need for a wheelchair, as well as current abusive and medically unsound force-feeding practices at the prison," as Reprieve explained in a press release.
Reprieve also noted, correctly, that "Col. Bogdan is responsible for a particularly brutal regime over the past two years at Guantánamo," pointing out that, "In response to the mass hunger strike of 2013, he rolled out a series of harsh punishments designed to 'break’ the peaceful protest of scores of cleared men who despair of ever being released." Bogdan also features prominently in a CBS news report from Guantánamo last fall, in which Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, shouted out from his cell, and directly exposed the prisoners’ plight to US audiences.
Reprieve also noted that medical records for Dhiab, which were made public last Wednesday, suggested that the decision to deprive Dhiab of his wheelchair "was entirely punitive." They cited a note from a nurse, dated April 25, 2014, which warned him that his "dis[ciplinary] status with guard force is affecting his ability to have a wheelchair."
As the motion was submitted, Cori Crider explained, "If you take a disabled man’s wheelchair away, you ought to have to answer for it under oath. Col. Bogdan’s new 'no wheelchairs’ policy reveals at best a callous indifference to suffering, and at worst an abuse of the total power he exercises over prisoners in his care. This is the ugly reality of Guantánamo, and it is just the tip of the iceberg."
Reprieve also noted that a "full hearing on the merits of [Abu Wa'el Dhiab's] force-feeding challenge is expected to be scheduled by Labor Day," which falls on the first Monday in September. However, it is clear that there will be other legal challenges before then, as Dhiab’s lawyers, with the invaluable support of Judge Kessler, have succeeded in shining a light on the darkness that still prevails at the heart of Guantánamo, whose exposure will, I hope, spur the Obama administration to renewed action in releasing prisoners, despite the manufactured hysteria from Republicans regarding the recent Bowe Bergdahl/Taliban prisoner release.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the "Close Guantánamo" campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (available on DVD here – or here for the US).
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