Opinion

Gitmo hunger striker v. Barack Obama

Why my client, Emad Hassan, is suing the president to end his force-feeding

March 11, 2014 3:15AM ET
A 'non-compliant' detainee is escorted by guards after showering inside the U.S. military prison for 'enemy combatants' on October 27, 2009 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
John Moore/Getty Images

Today one of my clients, Emad Hassan, a detainee and hunger striker at Guantánamo Bay, files a challenge in U.S. federal court to prevent his force-feeding by military staff. Obviously, I find this difficult: I like Emad. He is an intelligent, thoroughly decent man from Yemen who never was an extremist. Indeed, you’d have to either laugh or cry if you heard how they muddled his original detention: U.S. interrogators asked, through and Arabic interpreter, if he was familiar with Al-Qaeda. He said he was. Indeed, he had been there once or twice. They did not understand that he was talking about the small town of al-Qaidah, just north of Aden. It took years for the Guantánamo interrogators to understand this, but they seem finally to have accepted that he is no terrorist, and he has been cleared for release. 

I tried going without food for seven days in solidarity with my clients last year, but my inconsequential gesture pales when placed beside Emad’s commitment: He has been on hunger strike, force-fed, since 2007, or more than half his time in the prison. He was 23 and a university student in Pakistan when he was seized by the Pakistanis and sold to the U.S. military for a $5,000 bounty. Now he is 35. He had never been to Afghanistan until the U.S. military took him there. He was then rendered around the world to Cuba.

Emad Hassan
Emad Hassan

Emad, a dignified man whose name is spelled "Imad" on many court filings, explains to me that he has been barely living through constant abuse in Guantánamo’s darkness for the past decade. Almost his entire adult life, he has been isolated, thousands of miles from his family in and around Aden. He feels that the only way that he can re-enter the world of the living is to press his moral point against the United States: Give him a fair trial or give him his life back. Americans who live in New Hampshire, where the state motto is “Live free or die,” should understand. President Barack Obama presumably sides with Emad as well, since he has said he wants the prison closed altogether.

I don’t want to see Emad starve himself to death. If I thought the U.S. military was force-feeding him for humanitarian reasons, I would have a little more sympathy for it, even though what it is doing is unethical by any standard. In the Tokyo Declaration, the World Medical Association made clear 39 years ago that it is wrong to force-feed a competent prisoner who is peacefully protesting. 

When liquid is forced into Emad at excessive speed, he vomits on himself. The feeding process starts again, but the vomit remains.

However, I am sad to say that the U.S. military is simply abusing Emad. In the early days of the Guantánamo hunger strikes, which began in 2002, the force-feeding regimen was less harsh, but in late 2005 Gen. Bantz J. Craddock announced that he was going to make it less “convenient” for Emad and other prisoners to protest. By this euphemism, he meant it would be gratuitously painful. Instead of leaving the 110-centimeter tube to the prisoner’s stomach in his nose for weeks on end, they began to pull it out after each feeding and force it back in the next time — twice a day. They also began to use a much thicker tube. Emad, therefore, has been subjected to this now more than 5,000 times. No wonder that one nostril has totally seized up and the other causes him great pain. 

They started using the restraint chair to strap Emad down while using pressure points on his neck to prevent him from struggling. The prisoners call it the torture chair, and an advertising flier recommends its use for “interrogating prisoners.”

Dan Corcoran, CEO of a company that makes such chairs, has no time for those who have, for some decades now, called his product a medieval instrument of torture.

“You know when you take a little bird and it’s lost and confused and at first its heart is beating?” he asks. “But if you fully cup that bird in your hands and immobilize it, the bird … calms down.” So, too, he says, with human beings. The chair “makes a real nice sit for them.” 

Emad’s experience does not quite live up to Corcoran’s idealized avian world. When liquid is forced into him at excessive speed, he vomits on himself. The feeding process starts again, but the vomit remains. With the nutrient mix comes the forcible administration of medication to counteract his inevitable constipation. The most humiliating aspect of the whole process, he says, is when he defecates on himself and is forced to remain seated for an hour or more before being returned to his cell — where he will be refused clean clothes. 

There is a perfectly simple solution to Emad’s peaceful protest: Send him home to his brothers and sisters and let him get on with the education he originally sought in Pakistan. Perhaps then he will one day become a doctor, as he always wished. 

Meanwhile, Craddock is correct that none of this is convenient for the detainees. Nor is it civilized. It is, indeed, un-American, and the sooner that Obama or the courts put a stop to it, the better for everyone.

Clive Stafford Smith is the founder and director of Reprieve.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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