Reprieve, the legal action charity whose lawyers represent a number of prisoners still held at Guantánamo Bay revealed yesterday that a nurse with the US military at the prison "recently refused to force-feed" prisoners "after witnessing the suffering" it caused them.
Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian prisoner long cleared for release from Guantánamo, who is in a wheelchair as a result of his physical deterioration after 12 years in US custody without charge or trial, told his lawyer Cori Crider during a phone call last week (on July 10) that the male nurse "recently told him he would no longer participate in force-feedings."
Dhiab reported that the nurse said, "I have come to the decision that I refuse to participate in this criminal act."
He added that, "after the man made his decision known, he never saw him again," and Reprieve noted that he had "apparently been assigned elsewhere."
Reprieve also noted that the nurse had spoken to Mr. Dhiab about what he perceived to be "the discrepancy between military descriptions of force-feeding and the reality." He said, as Mr. Dhiab described it, "before we came here, we were told a different story. The story we were told was completely the opposite of what I saw." Mr. Dhiab added that other nurses had "voiced their concern" about force-feeding, but had stated that they "had no power to object." He said he frequently heard comments along the lines of, "Listen, we have no choice. We are worried about our job, our rank."
Reprieve described how the nurse’s stand was "thought to be the first case of 'conscientious objection’ to force-feeding at Guantánamo since a mass hunger-strike began at the prison last year."
Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s story will be familiar to these who are studying Guantánamo closely, as he is one of six cleared prisoners offered new homes in Uruguay by President Mujica and is "currently engaged in a high-profile court battle against force-feeding, winning the first-ever disclosure of videotapes of the practice," as Reprieve described it, and as I reported here.
Last month, his lawyers were permitted to watch the videotapes at a Pentagon facility in Virginia, and afterwards Cori Crider stated, "I had trouble sleeping after viewing them." However, as was revealed in yesterday’s press release, the lawyers are "banned from disclosing their contents to the public or even, in unprecedented censorship, to other security-cleared Guantánamo lawyers." On June 20, 16 mainstream media organizations submitted a motion in which they are seeking to have the force-feeding tapes made public.
In response to the news about the nurse’s principled opposition to force-feeding, Cori Crider said, "This is a historic stand by this nurse, who recognized the basic humanity of the detainees and the inhumanity of what he was being asked to do. He should be commended. He should also be permitted to continue to give medical care to prisoners on the base but exempted from a practice he rightly sees as a violation of medical ethics."
In the Miami Herald, veteran Guantánamo reporter Carol Rosenberg reported how, in response to questions about the nurse, Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, a spokesman for the prison, said by email, "There was a recent instance of a medical provider not willing to carry out the enteral feeding of a detainee. The matter is in the hands of the individual’s leadership." He added that the nurse had been given "alternative duties."
Rosenberg added that the nurse’s refusal to force-feed prisoners took place "sometime before the Fourth of July."
She also quoted Cori Crider saying that the nurse’s decision took "real courage," and that "none of us should underestimate how hard that has been."
Rosenberg also noted that the nurse was with the Navy medical corps, but explained that the Miami Herald had "not been able to determine the nurse’s name or home base," although Cori Crider explained that Mr. Dhiab had "described the nurse as a perhaps 40-year-old Latino who turned up on the cellblocks in April or May, with the rank of a 'captain,’" although Rosenberg thought it likely that he was a Navy lieutenant. She also noted how, last year, in the New England Journal of Medicine, civilian doctors on the US mainland had "decried as unethical the Guantánamo military medical staff’s practice of force-feeding mentally competent hunger strikers," and had "urged a medical mutiny."
No one knows how many of the 149 men still held at Guantánamo are currently on hunger strike, as the military stopped reporting the numbers in December, after a nine-month period in which numbers had been reported on a daily basis. In February, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, stated that there were 35 hunger strikers at the time, and that 18 of them were being force-fed.
The Miami Herald also reported further details about Cori Crider’s recent call with Abu Wa’el Dhiab, noting that, as the newspaper put it, he "described how he came to witness the nurse’s evolution toward refusing to tube feed across two or three months of treatment." Mr. Dhiab explained that this evolution was "very compassionate."
Carol Rosenberg added further details about the force-feeding of prisoners, as explained to reporters who visit Guantánamo Bay but are not allowed to see the force-feedings take place. She wrote that "a Navy medical team uses a calculus of meals missed and weight lost to decide when to recommend a once or twice a day tube feeding of a can of Ensure or other nutritional supplement." The commander of the camps, who is a Navy admiral and not a doctor, is required to approve each feeding, which is managed by a "sailor trained as a medic."
The process of the force-feeding itself is well documented — not least in the video of Yasiin Bey (formerly the rapper Mos Def) being force-fed last year, and in the animated film about force-feeding produced for Reprieve and the Guardian.
Cori Crider also explained how, before his complete refusal to be involved in force-feeding, the nurse "at times waived a doctor’s order to do a tube feeding," as the Miami Herald described it.
She said Mr. Dhiab had told her, "Here, whenever a person has a fever or is sick, the typical force-feeding crew were still very rough with you. However, when he came to the block and saw that the person had a fever or was sick, he would say, 'OK, because you are sick, you are not able to receive force-feeding’ and left them alone for that day."
Crider added that the nurse should be permitted to tell his story to Judge Gladys Kessler, who issued the order requiring the authorities to release videotapes of Mr. Dhiab’s force-feeding to his lawyers, "despite any nondisclosure agreements detention center staff are obliged to sign," in the Miami Herald's words. Judge Kessler said last month that a full hearing on the merits of Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s force-feeding challenge should take place by Labor Day, which falls on the first Monday in September.
"If he [the nurse] wants to give that evidence he should be allowed to give it," Crider added.
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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