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‘Extremely disturbing’ force-feeding tapes cited in Gitmo abuse case

Lawyers spent the weekend examining footage — one told Al Jazeera she now has ‘trouble sleeping’

Lawyers who spent the weekend examining 28 videotapes of a detainee at Guantánamo Bay being force-fed told a federal judge Wednesday they plan to submit the “extremely disturbing” set of tapes as evidence of rights abuse at the base.

“I’ve had a lot of trouble sleeping this week as a result of watching these tapes,” Alka Pradhan, a member of the legal team representing Syrian national Abu Wa’el Dhiab, told Al Jazeera. She said the footage gave an insight into conditions at the controversial camp and that President Barack Obama should “sit down and watch” it.

In addition to submitting the footage as part of their case, Dhiab's attorneys informed the D.C. District Court that they will also file a motion by the end of the week seeking interviews with several Guantánamo officials — including the senior medical officer at the camp and Army Col. John Bogdan, a Guantánamo prison commander.

The hearing Wednesday was part of a lawsuit that alleges Dhiab and other detainees are being subjected to inhumane force-feedings and treatment during their participation in a hunger strike to protest their detainment.

U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler, presiding over the case, also ordered the government to produce to Dhiab’s defense team four additional videos from a time frame when he “alleges particularly rough treatment from a new FCE [forced cell extraction] team,” Pradhan said. 

Lawyers for Dhiab spent the weekend viewing the videotapes in a special facility in Washington, D.C. The attorneys were looking for evidence of what Dhiab and other detainees have portrayed as inhumane cell extractions and force feedings, which lawyers say is akin to torture.

They are the first non–government employees to review the footage, which offers a rare window into the internal workings at Guantánamo.

The tapes are thought to show Dhiab, held without charge since 2002, being forcibly extracted from his cell and taken to a facility where he is strapped into a chair and is fed liquid nutrients enterally, or through tubes inserted in his nostrils and down his throat.

Dhiab, who spends most of his time on his back because of kidney and back ailments, is described by lawyers as "profoundly depressed."

He requires the use of a wheelchair and does not leave his cell except by force, according to his representatives.

"Bit by bit, tape by tape, this case is starting to reveal the ugly reality of Guantánamo," said Dhiab's attorney Cori Crider. "The only question is how long the president, who has the power to release this cleared man, will continue to look away and leave him to endure this pointless torment."

The decision to submit the entire collection of videotapes along with a deposition motion came in the wake of troubling allegations by a detainee last week that Guantánamo officials had ceased videotaping the force-feeding process and were prohibiting disabled detainees from using their wheelchairs.

The information, provided by detainee Ahmed Rabbani, was filed with the court on June 10.

Soon after that, lawyers submitted three videotapes into evidence, presumably to corroborate Rabbani's statements. Those who have seen the videos have been barred from talking about the content to the media.

In the affidavit, Rabbani says the decision by staff to stop filming the cell extractions and force feedings is a "great shame," as he would always describe loudly for the camera what was being done to him.

Discussing the confiscation of Dhiab's wheelchair, Rabbani said the only option Dhiab was given was to walk to force-feeding sessions on his own or be “violently extracted” from his cell.

The decision to stop filming the force-feeding process — which includes forcible cell extractions — was criticized by lawyers as an attempt to evade the impact of litigation and a “patent effort to avoid creating additional damning evidence of abusive practices,” according to an emergency motion filed Monday seeking a temporary restraining order on the ban.

Lawyers say the practice of forcibly extracting detainees from their cell is wholly unnecessary in Dhiab's case. “Dhiab does not resist authorities and has made it clear that he is willing to go for his force feedings," Pradhan said.

But because he is unable to walk, he requests his wheelchair in order to get to the room where the enteral feeding is given.

“I am willing to be force-fed in a humane manner,” Dhiab told his attorney. “Is it necessary for them to torture me? Is it necessary for them to choke me every day with the tube? Is it necessary for them to make my throat swollen every day? Do I have to suffer every day?"

Although the videos are classified, Bogdan described in a little-known sworn declaration that was unsealed last month how forced cell extractions work when used during forced feedings and what the tapes may show.

“The FCE team is a small group of military members specializing in the extraction of a detainee who is combative, resistive, or possibly possesses a weapon at the time of the extraction,” Bogdan said in the declaration, submitted by the government in Dhiab’s case. “Guards are trained to use minimal force necessary for mission accomplishment and force protection.”

Bogdan added that the forced cell extraction team is not used as “punishment” but “only on those who indicate or demonstrate the intent to resist, refuse to follow guard staff instructions, cause a disturbance, or endanger the lives of themselves, other detainees, or any [Joint Task Force-Guantanamo] member.”

A former high-ranking Guantánamo guard who was in charge of the special military team that performed forced cell extractions said a videographer accompanies the unit and videotapes the procedures. The guard, who requested anonymity because he was unclear if the information he was disclosing is classified, said the videos are used for training purposes and retained as evidence in the event a detainee says he was abused.  

In his declaration, Bogdan said that “detainees seldom sustain injuries” during forced-cell extractions “that require medical treatment.”

But according to court documents filed by Dhiab’s attorneys, the prisoner told another one of his lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith, that he has suffered back and leg injuries during the procedures. 

Pradhan said the videos of Dhiab she has viewed would be “disturbing to anyone.” 

"It's extremely sad that it has taken 12 years to get this kind of evidence from Guantánamo produced," she said.

Judge Kessler has expressed on numerous occasions her desire to move the case along in order to lessen Dhiab's suffering, according to lawyers.

Pradhan said Dhiab does not want to die but wants his ordeal at Guantánamo Bay to end. He recently wrote on his cell wall: “This torture until when?”

Dhiab “wants to see his wife and kids,” Pradhan said. “His view is that since they won’t release him, they will just continue to punish him.”

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