Attorneys for a longtime hunger-striker at Guantanamo Bay said today that refusing food is his only means of peaceful protest and asked a federal judge to stop his jailers from punishing him by being cruel in their application of force-feeding techniques.
Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s court case is being carefully watched because U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled on Friday that videos of Dhiab’s force-feeding – which involves the repeated insertion and removal of a rubber tube up his nose – should be publicly released.
But the only showing of the videos today was behind closed doors, as the Justice Department continues to wrangle over how and when to release them.
In a short closed session, Sondra Crosby, a Boston University medical professor who examined Dhiab on behalf of his legal team, was shown a few minutes of footage and asked her medical opinion.
Attorneys for the Justice Department said they have stopped forcibly extracting Dhiab from his cell, and are no longer denying him use of a wheelchair.
Afterwards, all she would say was that the footage was “disturbing.”
Cori Crider, an attorney at the human-rights group Reprieve who is part of Dhiab’s legal team, said releasing the videos would show the public that abuse at Guantanamo is not a thing of the past. “The main reason to see this is because there’s pretty shocking stuff happening now,” she said.
In her open-court testimony, Crosby said Dhiab complained of pain and bleeding associated with the insertion of the nasal tubes, and said he had been forcibly extracted from his cell – an aggressive practice that involves physical force and restraints – about 1,300 times since arriving at Guantanamo in 2002. Dhiab’s medical condition is complex, Crosby said, and includes complaints of partial paralysis that he attributes to supernatural creatures.
Attorneys for Dhiab, who was cleared for release five years ago, didn’t argue against force-feeding in general, but against its application to their client in particular, saying medical personnel were being punitive in their treatment. Medical decisions should be “made by a doctor, not a jailer,” they argued.
The Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media, and 15 other news organizations petitioned the court to unseal the videos and have open hearings in Dhiab’s case.
Lawyers displayed medical records that appeared to show decisions such as depriving Dhiab of a wheelchair, his socks and underwear, being made for disciplinary reasons.
“That’s completely inappropriate and cruel, to take a wheelchair away from someone who is not able to walk,” Crosby said. “It looks like medical care is being withheld as part of disciplinary status and that should never happen.”
Attorney Eric Lewis said his client’s hunger strike is the only way he has to protest peacefully. “It’s a cry of humanity from a person who feels he has no choice left,” Lewis said. “Mr. Dhiab does not want to die, he wants to be treated like a human being,”
Attorneys for the Justice Department said federal jailers have stopped forcibly extracting Dhiab from his cell, and are no longer denying him use of a wheelchair – two of Dhiab’s several complaints. Dhiab is also eating voluntarily at times. In fact, the doctors who examined him and testified about their findings today said they shared a meal with him.
Justice Department lawyers also said force-feeding is not painful, and explained that patients like Dhiab couldn’t be allowed to keep the tube inserted between feedings for fear that they would pull it out and use it as a weapon.
The court also heard from psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general who also examined Dhiab for his legal team. Dhiab “can get very sad at times,” Xenakis said. “He wants to just get out, live with his family, and lead his life in a plain, simple way.”
Photo: Dan Froomkin/The Intercept