Jumah Dossari has been imprisoned at Guantánamo for nearly four years without charges or access to his family, in nearly complete isolation. On October 15, he tried to hang himself in his cell, timing the attempt so that an outsider might see him dangling in a makeshift noose, his last message to the world. Dossari has more or less survived. (Military officials confirm that in the last few months, there have been at least 36 suicide attempts.)
While he was being revived, other prisoners at Guantánamo, who are being force-fed because they are on a hunger strike in desperation, like Dossari’s, had their cases heard against “George W. Bush, et al.,” in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
I have seen many stories on the hunger strikers in the national and international press; but the clearest account I know, vividly detailing what George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld keep describing as the “humane” treatment of prisoners at Gitmo, is in Judge Gladys Kessler’s decision on these cases in the D.C. District Court.
The prisoners are asking for a writ of habeas corpus challenging the government to prove the legality of their being held at the U.S. naval base. There have been hunger strikes at Guantánamo before; and this most recent one—according to the petitioners’ lawyers—included between 131 to 210 “detainees” of the 500 in prison. The Defense Department’s statistics are reluctant and changeable, so that count may be larger.
At least 20 of the “detainees” claim they are being “forcibly subjected to involuntary medical intervention via the introduction of intravenous fluids or nasocentric (nasal) tube feeding.”
In her memorandum opinion, Judge Kessler quoted a declaration by Julia Tarver, the counsel for three of the petitioners. It was submitted to the court after she had visited her clients at Guantánamo from September 30 to October 2 of this year.
Julia Tarver wrote that during the forced feeding of Yousef Al Shehri, as the tubes were inserted “through [his] nose, down the throat, and into the stomach, Al Shehri was given no sedative for the procedure; instead, two soldiers restrained him—one holding his chin while the other held him back by his hair and a medical staff member forcefully inserted the tube in his nose and down his throat. . . . He could not speak for two days [and] he could not sleep because of the severe pain.” Judge Kessler wrote that “the procedure caused him and other detainees to vomit ‘substantial amounts of blood.’ ”
In a different prison location, where there was a hole in the floor in which to urinate, thicker tubes were inserted into prisoners’ noses; and when one was removed from Al Shehri’s nose, Julia Tarver wrote (in another passage quoted by Judge Kessler), “blood came gushing out of him. He fainted, and several of the other detainees almost lost consciousness.”
Further indicating that the “humane treatment” the president continually pledges is mandated in the cells at Guantánamo, Yousef Al Shehri also said, according to Julia Tarver’s account, that “in front of Guantánamo physicians—including the head of the detainees hospital—the guards took NG tubes from one detainee, and with no sanitation whatsoever, re-inserted it into the nose of a different detainee.” (Emphasis in original.) The passage continued: “The detainees could see the blood and stomach bile from other detainees remaining on the tubes.”
Judge Kessler then wrote: “Petitioners assert that because of this needlessly cruel and painful treatment, Al Shehri ‘can no longer walk.’ ” The judge further quoted from Tarver’s account: “He lost some of his vision, and he is vomiting every day. . . . He has severe headaches and great pain in his ear. He is only able to urinate once every few days. . . . He has given his last will and testament, as he fully anticipates that he is going to die.”
Some years ago, I was in Judge Gladys Kessler’s courtroom and admired the crisp decisiveness of her judicial temperament. Therefore, I was not surprised that in her ruling on these cases, she noted that the government, in its response to these charges, “pointed out that thus far, ‘no one has died.’ ”
Said Judge Kessler: “It goes without saying that this Court need not wait to issue injunctive relief until a detainee has died.”
She went on: “The court concludes that Petitioners have provided sufficient facts . . . to establish that the threat of death or serious physical deterioration is real and imminent, and that Petitioners have satisfied the requirement of facing irreparable harm unless injunctive relief is granted.”
Kessler’s conclusion was that these prisoners have a right to challenge their detentions, as the Supreme Court ruled; and to have meaningful access to their lawyers and the Court.
Moreover, from now on, the government must inform the prisoners’ lawyers “within 24 hours of the commencement of any forced feeding.” And the government must provide “medical records spanning the period beginning one week prior to the date forced feeding commenced,” and must also continue providing medical records, “at a minimum, on a weekly basis until forced feeding concludes.”
Meanwhile, Manfred Nowak, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture, has asked Donald Rumsfeld for permission to bring a team of U.N. human rights investigators to Guantánamo to interview the prisoners. Rumsfeld said they could come, but could not see the “detainees” privately. Nowak, refusing to come, said mordantly, “He said they have nothing to hide.” Ah, but Rumsfeld is allowing an International Committee of the Red Cross delegation to have private meetings with the prisoners. That, said Nowak, is because Red Cross investigators cannot declare their findings publicly. The U.N. team can.
Rumsfeld says of the hunger strike that these “detainees” are merely “fasting” for brief periods in rotation with each other.
Next week: Because of an amendment to the defense spending bill by slippery South Carolina Republican senator Lindsey Graham, passed by the Senate on November 11, barring Guantánamo prisoners from our federal courts despite a contrary Supreme Court ruling in June 2004, Judge Kessler’s ruling may no longer hold, unless a counter-amendment can soon be passed. And the “humane” force-feeding will go on as before.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 15, 2005