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Government Secrecy Frustrates Legal Challenge to Forced Feeding of Guantanamo Prisoners

Example of a tube used in forced feedings of Guantanamo prisoners (Photo from US Navy and in the public domain)

A case challenging the forced feeding of Guantanamo Bay prisoners is on appeal in the DC Circuit, but prisoners’ attorneys have been frustrated by the United States government’s refusal to disclose new protocols for forced feeding, which are relevant to the lawsuit.

Attorneys for Shaker Aamer, the last remaining British prisoner who has frequently led hunger strikes, and others consider the exact protocols essential to determining whether it is in fact true the Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) is “using protocols established by the Bureau of Prisons and used throughout the Federal Prison System.”

“If the new protocols on restraints provide for routine or long-term use of restraint chairs, then the answer to that question is no,” the attorneys argue, in a recent court filing.

The government contends it does not have to disclose the exact protocols, which revise a previous protocol from March 5, 2013. They claim the prisoners’ attorneys are only challenging “enteral feeding” or forced feeding in general.

“By refusing to disclose to us the protocols governing the use of restraints during force-feeding, government counsel have made impossible a fair comparison of previous restraint procedures with current restraint procedures,” the attorneys explain.

The government says revised protocols have been given to them—versions from November and December of last year. Prisoners’ attorneys do not dispute this fact, however, they say they are missing key guidelines on the use of restraints. And, they add, what they have read differs significantly from the previous protocols, making it even more critical that all protocols currently used by JTF-GTMO, which apply to force-feeding, be shared with the court.

Replying to a government opposition brief, the prisoners’ attorneys offer a searing allegation—that this is all a part of a “re-branding effort.” They note the new protocols now apply to those “experiencing clinically significant weight loss,” not hunger strikers.

As the Government would have it, appellant Shaker Aamer is no longer a “hunger striker” threatened with force-feeding under physical restraint, but is merely “experiencing clinically significant weight loss” which earns him “approv[al] for “enteral feeding.” This re-branding effort—along with the Government’s designation of the revised protocols as “protected information,” its concealment of the associated restraint protocols, and JFT-GTMO’s recent announcement that it will no longer publicize the number of hunger-striking detainees betrays a new strategy for addressing the Guantánamo Bay hunger strike: Pretend it does not exist, hide information about it, and purge the very phrase “hunger striker” from the Government’s lexicon.

As mentioned, in December, JTF-GTMO, which prides itself on “safe,” “humane, “legal,” and “transparent” detention for prisoners, decided media would no longer be given data on the number of prisoners on hunger strike. Navy Commander John Filostrat, a spokesperson for Guantanamo, said the daily disclosure had been a “disruption of prison-camp operations.”

“JTF-Guantánamo allows detainees to peacefully protest but will not further their protests by reporting the numbers to the public,” Filostrat stated. “The release of this information serves no operational purpose and detracts from the more important issues, which are the welfare of detainees and the safety and security of our troops.”

As I wrote in December, “welfare of detainees” and “safety and security of our troops” are meaningless buzz phrases. Truth is, regardless of the fact that less than fifty prisoners have been designated for trial or military commission in the history of the prison—meaning the others have been cleared for release and/or are being held indefinitely without charge—the leadership of the facility do not see hunger strikes as benign struggles for human rights. They consider all involved in protests to be engaged in activity that has a nexus with al Qaeda and its affiliates.

In November 2013, the Institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP) and the Open Society Foundations (OSF) put out a report on the role of medical professionals in prisoner abuse in the war on terrorism. The report highlighted how the Defense Department claims its “force-feeding policies follow the procedures of the US Bureau of Prisons.” Yet, that is completely false.

The Bureau of Prisons “does not use restraint chairs and has very strict rules on the use of physical restraints on prisoners, including prohibiting the use of four-point restraints without specific approval of the warden as the only means to maintain control over an inmate.”

The report also added, “The Bureau of Prisons also grants detainees access to counsel and to the courts, does not engage in force-feeding as a tactic to break political protests, and requires that the response to political protests be in accord with accepted medical practice. Physicians sent to Guantánamo are screened by the DoD prior to deployment to ensure that they do not object to force-feeding.”

Force-feeding is not accepted as acceptable treatment of hunger strikers by the vast majority of medical professionals. The way JTF-GTMO has employed force-feeding amounts to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment, according to IMAP/OSF.

The increased secrecy around hunger strikes at Guantanamo and the effort to frustrate a lawsuit against forced feeding are necessary to protect the military’s ability to break political protests without facing public scrutiny. It has nothing to do with looking out for the safety or health of prisoners. And this is why attorneys for Aamer and other prisoners are challenging the use of forced feeding.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."