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Obama Administration Would Rather Subject Gravely Ill Guantanamo Prisoner to More Torture Than Release Him

President Barack Obama’s administration would rather subject a gravely ill Guantanamo Bay prisoner to continuous abusive force-feedings, which amount to torture, than support his release from the military prison because he is sick.

Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni prisoner and resident of Saudi Arabia, has been on hunger strike for more than eight years at the military prison. He has been confined in “solitary conditions” for 13 years, despite the fact that Obama’s own review task force—comprised of officials from the top US security agencies—cleared Odah for release in 2009. His body can no longer endure the effects of nasal tube feedings, and he weighs about 74 pounds.

In June, his lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) launched a legal push for Odah’s release because the US has an “obligation to release seriously wounded and sick prisoners” under the “laws of war,” particularly the Third Geneva Convention.

The government opposes [PDF] the push by CCR and claims it is Odah’s fault that he is suffering from potentially fatal health complications because he went on hunger strike against the medical advice of personnel at the prison.

Also, the government contends Odah has refused medical treatment. If Odah were to be eligible for release because of his medical condition, he would have to “cooperate in his medical treatment.”

“To overlook that requirement in these circumstances would encourage other Guantanamo detainees to refuse needed medical care or hunger-strike or otherwise attempt self-harm, and thus could significantly affect the ability of the military to operate the detention facility at Guantanamo appropriately,” the government argues.

Photo from CCR of Odah prior to significant weight loss at Guantanamo

The government further insists Odah’s attorney has exaggerated the severity of his medical condition. And, even if his condition is as grave as his attorney alleges, the military has a “comprehensive medical care system.”

“Should his health worsen, medical personnel are prepared to admit him to the Detainee Hospital and place him on continuous [forced feeding], to allow slower feeding and, so, limit [Odah’s] ability to purge the nutrition. Additionally, involuntary medical testing may be considered if his condition worsens,” according to the government.

What the Obama administration refuses to acknowledge is the World Medical Association considers force-feeding to be cruel and inhuman treatment. The way force-feedings have been carried out on Guantanamo prisoners has resembled brutal punishment.

Sami Al-Hajj, a journalist for Al Jazeera, who was detained by the US for seven years in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, has described the tortuous nature of force-feeding, which he experienced [PDF]:

They’re supposed to feed you [with] two cans, small cans … but they feed us 24 cans and 24 bottle of water, continuous. And we [were] throwing up, it continues and we throwing up and it continues. This is one feeding; [it] would take 8 hours like that, you are in chair. Until your cell become full of [vomit]. And after that, when they come and [remove the feeding tube from the esophagus], they [would grab the tube and just walk away with it]. Then there was blood coming. And [the guard] takes it from you and he goes to another [detainee] directly and [inserts it] … without cleaning.

Another prisoner, Abdul-Rahman Shalabi, has claimed a U.S. Navy doctor once “inserted the nasogastric tube in his throat and kept moving the tube up and down until finally he started violently throwing up blood.”

His lawyer wrote a declaration that read, “Abdul-Rahman tried to resist what he called the ‘torture’ from this physician but he could not breathe. He was suffocating and when the tube that had been jabbing him internally was finally removed, it was full of blood.”

Force-feedings have been used to break detainees resisting the conditions of their confinement through hunger strikes.

“A US Navy forensic psychiatrist and three experts from the Bureau of Prisons” argued in December 2005, according to a report from the Institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP) and the Open Society Foundations [PDF], that hunger strikes happened to be a “discipline issue and that the failure to eat was a violation of camp rules.”

One detainee, Jum’ah Aldossari, recalled being told if hunger strikers “challenged the United States, the United States would challenge them back using these tactics.” The fear of being brutally force-fed and the screams heard from prisoners has been wielded by personnel to discourage hunger-striking.

The government accuses Odah of flushing food and “concealing his failure to drink his nutritional supplements.” He has apparently pretended to consume food to convince personnel he may bypass the next force-feeding. Yet, the government does not suggest Odah is trying to avoid abuse and that is why he fakes consuming food. To the government, treatment of detainees like Odah has been nothing but humane.

“Military medical personnel routinely and extensively have counseled [Odah] about the potentially severe medical consequences of his hunger strike and have attempted over the course of his hunger strike to monitor his physical and mental condition, attempts he has routinely rebuffed,” the government adds.

It suggests medical personnel have worked to “preserve” Odah’s life and health through force-feedings yet, in spite of this fact, Odah has refused “regular nutrition” for the past eight years, which has “predictably resulted in significant weight loss.”

Odah has declined medical treatment because he does not trust the medical staff.

Dr. Sandra S. Crosby, the director and co-founder of the immigration and refugee health program at the Boston Medical Center, wrote [PDF], “Mr. Ba Odah believes—not unreasonably in my opinion—that physicians at Guantanamo have been utilized as instruments of the guard force to coerce prisoners to ‘break the strike.”

“When this loss of trust occurs, patients will often not accept appropriate medical recommendations,” Crosby concluded. This loss of trust is directly related to Odah’s risk of “serious organ damage and/or death.”

The government’s position essentially is, if Odah would stop resisting the conditions of his confinement and accept medical treatment, he would be healthy. He is not severely ill because he is being kept in detention at Guantanamo. He is severely ill because he rejects medical advice from personnel to pursue his protest and maintain some level of dignity.

Legally, the government insists Odah’s continued detention is “lawful” and his medical condition does not “entitle” him to a court order for release. The courts should not review the Executive Branch’s decisions on whether to release sick detainees.

A Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT), according to the government, determined Odah was “properly detainable” under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) as a “member of al Qaida or the Taliban.” Odah is not “entitled” to prisoner-of-war status under the Geneva Conventions. If the government did grant Odah this status, it may “incentivize” militants from stateless groups, which do not adhere to the “laws of war.”

As Naureen Shah of Amnesty International has declared, “The Pentagon reportedly fears that if Ba Odah is released, other detainees will go on hunger strike. That’s an outrageous reason for depriving anyone of their liberty and it has no basis in international law. The administration must charge Ba Odah or release him,” Shah declared.

What Odah’s case demonstrates is the Obama administration cares very little about the humanity of prisoners being held indefinitely without charge or trial. The administration is far more concerned with the jingoistic fear that hunger strikes are a show of solidarity with terrorists. To “reward” Odah with medical repatriation, even when he is cleared for release, would undermine the U.S. “War on Terrorism.”

Pentagon officials have contended “anyone undertaking hunger strikes” is “continuing the fight against the U.S. government.” This is why the Pentagon no longer releases data on the number of prisoners on hunger strike and why the Obama administration employed weak secrecy arguments to oppose the release of videos showing former Guantanamo prisoner Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s force-feedings.

The U.S. government would rather subject Guantanamo prisoners to torture before they show compassion and release prisoners who have dared to resist the inhumanity of their detention through a long-term hunger strike.

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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."