WASHINGTON — Guantánamo Bay officials were told they must hand over dozens of secret force-feeding videos as a U.S. district judge heard arguments Wednesday over a temporary order to halt the tube procedure for one inmate.
The status of Judge Gladys Kessler's unprecedented ruling, delivered Friday, to stop the force-feeding of hunger striker Abu Wa’el Dhiab was left unclear after the preliminary session. Kessler would not publicly address whether the order would remain in place. Instead she discussed the matter in closed court, with the clerk deploying a noise machine while the judge discussed the matter privately with government lawyers and Dhiab’s attorneys.
Kessler also emphasized that despite the order and the fact that in an earlier hearing she had called the feedings “painful, humiliating and degrading,” she had not come to a decision on the merits of the case.
“No one should have the misperception that that represented a ruling,” she said.
“The manner in which it must be handled is complicated,” Jon Eisenberg, one of Dhiab's attorneys who works for the U.K.-based humanitarian organization Reprieve, said after the hearing. “All I can tell you is the issue will be addressed expeditiously.”
At the hearing, attorneys for the Obama administration and Dhiab’s attorneys tussled over exactly what the government had to turn over to Dhiab’s lawyers and the court.
Kessler ultimately ordered the government to hand over approximately 34 secret videos, which show Dhiab, a Syrian who has been held without charge since 2002, being forcibly extracted from his prison cell and then force-fed with tubes through his nostrils. There are more than 130 videos of some aspect of Dhiab’s extractions and feedings, but Kessler ruled that manually making copies of all of them would present an undue burden to Guantánamo personnel.
The Obama administration has said force-feeding hunger strikers, although decried by various human rights activists, is the most humane way of keeping detainees alive as they protest their indefinite detention.
“I would prefer to watch every single videotape of every single force-feeding of every single detainee. That’s not physically possible,” Eisenberg said. “We’re satisfied with the ruling.”
Kessler also ordered the government lawyers to submit all of Dhiab’s medical records from 2013. The government had previously submitted only medical records from January to May of this year.
In addition, Kessler asked to see a listing of all protocols that govern force-feeding procedures, including the standard operating procedure of the use of a restraint chair. The judge will then decide what to share with Dhiab’s counsel.
Alka Pradhan, counterterrorism counsel for Reprieve, said she hopes more of the materials being turned over will eventually be made available to the public.
“It’s a big step forward,” she said of the day’s proceedings. “We certainly hope that we can illustrate that there is a compelling interest in the public knowing what happens in Guantánamo Bay.”
Eisenberg added that the lengths to which the Obama administration is going to keep its tactics and procedures with detainees a secret speaks to the inhumane conditions at the base.
“The more that comes to light about Guantánamo Bay, the sooner it will be closed. The government’s extraordinary efforts to maintain a veil of secrecy about the place continued today, and we’re trying to remove that veil,” he said. “It really makes you wonder what on earth is going there that they don’t want the American people to know.”
Government lawyers must submit the requested materials in the next two to three weeks. A schedule has not been set for additional hearings or a final ruling.
An exclusive Al Jazeera report in May 2013 found that hunger-striking Guantánamo prisoners who are force-fed undergo a medical procedure that requires them to be restrained to chairs and have long tubes inserted through their nostrils. The prisoners remain this way for two hours or as long as it takes for medical personnel to confirm that nutritional supplements have reached their stomachs.
The U.N. last year called the force-feedings at Guantánamo a breach of international law.
Shortly after being sworn in in 2009, President Barack Obama pledged to close the Guantánamo Bay facility. In his State of the Union address in January 2014, he repeated that pledge, but it is unclear if he will be able to accomplish that goal by the end of the year.