Charles Dharapak / AP

Hearings begin on force-feeding a Gitmo prisoner

Abu Wa’el Dhiab case reveals details of the controversial treatment of hunger-striking captives

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Abu Wa’el Dhiab has spent over 12 years in U.S. military captivity Guantánamo Bay, and remains there despite having been cleared for release by the U.S. government since 2009. (The 43-year-old Syrian national is one of six detainees who may eventually be sent to Uruguay.) But his case finally made it into a U.S. court, Monday, when U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler began two days of hearings – not on the question of why he remains at Guantánamo, but on the manner in which his captors have force-fed the  43-year-old Syrian citizen in the course of years of periodic hunger strikes.

So sensitive is the subject of detainee treatment at the Guantánamo facility that Department of Justice Civil Division Senior Trial Attorney Ronald Wiltsie interjected to object when expert witness Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general and practicing psychiatrist, began describing Dhiab’s “forcible cell extractions” (FCEs). The government lawyer said Xenakis’ account of the techniques used was “awful close to the line” of revealing classified information; Judge Kessler upheld Wiltsie’s objection.

In their opening statements, Dhiab's lawyers say the FCEs involves the prisoner, who reportedly has a pre-existing back injury, being violently removed from his cell, bound in a five-point restraint chair, having tubes pushed up his nose into his stomach, then, having been fed through the tubes, removed. He is then carried back to the cell and thrown on the ground, face down.

Monday's bifurcated hearing -- meaning parts were public, others not -- focused why, at one point, a prison doctor had ordered that roughly a dozen items, everything from his neck brace to his cotton socks, be taken from him. Dhiab was allowed to keep only his toothpaste. Dhiab's legal team  -- two attorneys from the U.K. rights group Reprieve as well as three from the Washington international law firm Lewis Baach -- argued that the prison doctor's order was punitive;  government did not address the question.

There are serious differences between the way force-feeding is conducted at the Bureau of Prisons and the way force-feeding being conducted at Guantánamo. And the way force-feeding is being conducted at Guantánamo is punitive rather than just to keep detainees alive.

Alka Pradhan

Lawyer for Abu Wa’el Dhiab

Monday's session heard evidence from two medical experts who had examined Dhiab, Xenakis and Sondra Crosby, a Boston physician who specializes in the treatment of refugees and those who have been subjected to abuse and torture. Each had examined Dhiab over three days in September, and both questioned whether Dhiab’s treatment in the facility constituted proper medical care.

Crosby expressed concern that necessary screenings for prostate cancer and kidney problems, as well as MRIs, had not been conducted by medical personnel at the prison facility, while Xenakis said that Dhiab felt his treatment was “demeaning and shameful.” The government offered no witnesses of its own, and focused largely on attempting to discredit Crosby and Xenakis by asking questions about his military career and his area of speciality -- an approach that at times provoked Kessler’s ire from Kessler. The judge had, last  Thursday, dismissed the DOJ’s request that the hearing be held in closed court, calling the motion to seal the proceedings “deeply troubling.”

In May, Kessler had ordered a halt to the force-feeding of Dhiab, and ordered the authorities to preserve video evidence of previous FCEs. On Friday, she ordered that those tapes be released, although whether, when and to what extent the government will comply remains to be seen.

“We filed a motion for preliminary injunction in March that listed a whole bunch of claims about the way he [Dhiab] was being force-fed – that he’d been forcibly extracted for every single time he was being fed, he was being fed when it wasn’t medically necessary, he’s being put in a five-point-restraint chair that isn’t necessary," said one of Dhiab’s attorneys, Reprieve’s Alka Pradhan. "He’s a disabled man and until recently, they were not allowing him to use a wheel chair or crutches even though he was willing to go."

Pradhan added,  "There are serious differences between the way force-feeding is conducted at the Bureau of Prisons and the way force-feeding being conducted at Guantánamo. And the way force-feeding is being conducted at Guantánamo is punitive rather than just to keep detainees alive.”

Government attorneys, however, argued on Monday that the prison provided “a high quality of care” to the inmates, and that Dhiab had on several instances assaulted prison staff, throwing urine and feces at them.

In his opening arguments, DOJ attorney Andrew Warden also stated that the nasal feeding tubes used were as small as the ones used in pediatric units so that “discomfort is minimized” and that medical staff at the prison took several steps to avoid “tube misplacement” or placing the tubes into lungs rather than the stomach.

Government attorneys also pointed out that Dhiab now has access to a wheel chair and will until February 2015, but could not guarantee that the status quo would continue after that.

No recourse

According to a statement Dhiab gave on September 2012, he is “tired”, “sick” and “very depressed.”

“I have no idea what to do. I am reaching a situation where I do not want to have any discussion with a guard or anyone else. I have come to a dead end. I am not acting out of stubbornness. Š I have no desire to do anything,” Dhiab said in a phone call, partial transcripts of which were published by the Center for Constitutional Rights.

“The painful circumstances that I am living in are unbearable. In particular, the repeated promises that have not been fulfilled. This is becoming more and more difficult. I know that President Obama wanted to improve the conditions here but the actual circumstances are very different from what he ordered. It is as if the prisoner is meant to be made of steel, not of human flesh.”

A suicide-risk assessment done at Guantánamo in September of 2013, introduced as evidence by the plaintiff’s legal team, indicated that Dhiab might be depressed due to “loss of family member, significant turmoil in home country, detained in a foreign country by foreign military.” It also noted that he had made no suicide attempts, and found Dhiab’s overall suicide risk to be  “low” based on his last assessment in June of 2013.

Dhiab’s hunger strike, argued attorney Eric Lewis in his opening statement, is not a suicidal act.

“Mr. Dhiab does not want to die. He wants to be treated like a human being,” said Lewis, adding that Dhiab’s treatment was “unconstitutional and unworthy of us as a nation.”

Guantánamo fatigue

A handful of activists showed up outside the courthouse on Constitutional Avenue to show support for Dhiab and the fight to close the prison facility that holds him. “The American public has looked away from the issue,” said Helen Schietinger, an organizer for rights group Witness Against Torture.

She said that officials routinely claim that the “worst of the worst” are kept at the island prison, but pointed out that attorneys say men such as Dhiab are held for no reason at all, and “that they’re despairing.”

President Barack Obama has promised repeatedly to close the prison, but it remains operational, with at least 149 prisoners still incarcerated. “The issue isn’t just how many people are there,” said Schietinger, “but that Guantánamo is still open at all.”

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