The government wants to keep secret a hearing where a hunger-striking Guantanamo detainee is attempting to expose the painful force-feedings endured by prisoners protesting their indefinite detention.
Abu Wa’el Dhiab is a 43-year-old Syrian who has been held at Guantanamo Bay since 2002. He has been on hunger strike for 18 months, and has asked a federal court to intervene to stop what he describes as brutal force-feedings conducted by the military at Guantanamo. The World Medical Association holds that force-feeding “is a degrading treatment, inhumane and may amount to torture.” Hearings in his case are set to begin in Washington next week.
Justice Department lawyers are arguing that Dhiab’s case “includes inextricably intertwined classified, protected, and unclassified information.” They want the public to be satisfied with opening statements and a quickly released, redacted transcript of the proceedings.
First Look Media, The Intercept’s parent company, is among the 16 news organizations that have petitioned the court to keep the hearing open, in a motion filed yesterday. First Look has also joined the others in asking the court to unseal videotapes of Dhiab’s force-feedings, which the government has classified as secret evidence in the case.
Cori Crider, an attorney for the international organization Reprieve that is representing Dhiab, believes that the government invoking national security to close the courtroom is far-fetched. “They’ve made this request at the 11th hour,” she said. “They know this is the first time that conditions at Guantanamo are going to be tried in federal court, and they don’t want doctors getting up on the stand and saying that what the government is doing right now is cruel and unethical.”
U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler, who is presiding over Dhiab’s challenge, temporarily ordered the military to stop forcing him to eat this spring, but then reversed her decision, saying that “the Court cannot simply let Mr. Dhiab die.” She has previously characterized force-feedings, however, as “a painful, humiliating and degrading process.”
Hunger strikes have been a constant at the military prison, but mass fasting began in early 2013 when prisoners alleged that guards had mishandled their Korans during cell searches. The protest escalated as it became clear that the goal of closing Guantanamo, and resolving the fates of the men who have languished there, some for over a decade, had slipped from President Obama’s agenda.
By the summer of 2013, roughly 100 detainees were on hunger strike and about 40 of them were subjected to force-feedings. Prisoners were often forcibly brought from their cells and restrained during the feedings, in which nutritional supplements are pushed down their throats through a tube. A hunger striker’s account of being tied to a bed for 26 hours appeared in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. An article in a prominent medical journal called on doctors at Guantanamo to mutiny, saying that “force-feeding a competent person is not the practice of medicine; it is aggravated assault.” (At least one Navy nurse at Guantanamo has refused to perform the procedure.)
The military has countered the growing attention to conditions at Guantanamo by saying that the prisoners have lied and manipulated public opinion. “It’s (the strikers’) desire to draw attention to themselves, and so we’re not going to help them do that,” a public affairs official told Al Jazeera America in December. Military officials have sought to downplay the protest, characterizing detainees as “not eating on a regular basis,” or calling the strikes “long-term non-religious fasts.” (Vice News recently obtained a standard operating procedure for dealing with strikers that was euphemistically titled “Medical Management of Detainees With Weight Loss.”)
In September of last year, as the official tally of strikers dwindled to the teens, the military stopped releasing its own figures on hunger strikers and force-feedings. Lawyers now estimate that sixteen or seventeen men are hunger striking, but stress that it is difficult to know for sure.
The military approved Dhiab for transfer out of Guantanamo in 2009, and the Obama administration signalled earlier this year that it intends to send Dhiab and five other detainees to Uruguay. But that transfer has stalled. Military officials have said that Dhiab has become violent toward guards.
Seventy of the 149 remaining detainees have been cleared for transfer out of the prison, but only six have left this year. “There was a sense for a moment, last year, that the eyes of the world were on Guantanamo again,” said Crider, “but now it’s really hard to keep up hope. Dhiab is not going to believe that anything is real until a plane takes off for somewhere else.”
Update: The Justice Department responded this afternoon with a new motion maintaining that an open hearing would be too “complicated.” The still-classified videos of “forced cell extractions” would be shown, the lawyers wrote, and they noted that doctors’ testimonies would include “procedures used to transport detainees” to force-feedings. The secret details of how the guards move detainees within the tightly controlled prison cannot be released, the government maintains.
Photo: Julian Simmonds/Rex Features/AP