Judge upholds Guantanamo’s treatment of hunger-striker

A federal judge has refused to intervene in the forced-feeding of a hunger-striking prisoner awaiting his transfer from the war-on-terror prison, declaring that U.S. military medical staff do not show deliberate indifference to the health and welfare of long-held captive Abu Wa’el Dhiab.

“The evidence produced at the hearing regarding pain was very mixed,” Judge Gladys Kessler wrote in her 20-page decision of the up-to twice-daily insertion of a feeding tube into the 43-year-old Syrian’s stomach through his nose. “There is evidence in the record, including Mr. Dhiab’s medical chart, that he often tolerates the procedure without complaints of pain or significant discomfort.”

Furthermore, she said in the decision issued late Friday, “there is simply no evidence” that U.S. troops use a restraint chair that immobilizes his limbs and head during the feedings “in order to deliberately cause him pain or suffering.”

Rather, she noted, Guantánamo records indicate that since April 1, 2014 the detainee has hit and kicked medical and guard staff, threatened murder and thrown his feces and vomit on some guards.

“For all these reasons, the court concludes that petitioner has not submitted sufficient evidence to demonstrate deliberate indifference on the part of the government,” Kessler wrote. 

The Syrian, who was told in 2009 he was cleared for release from Guantánamo, is among six captives who were notified earlier this year that they were selected for resettlement in Uruguay. He has been held at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba for 12 years, and cannot return to his native Syria or Pakistan, where he was picked up and turned over to the United States.

His transfer awaits the outcome of Uruguay’s Nov. 30 elections. President Jose Mujica offered to take them in earlier this year but the Pentagon was slow in its approval. Because of the delay, Mujica has said he will consult his successor on the decision. One candidate has been an outspoken opponent of offering safe haven.

In her decision, the judge noted that Dihab “is clearly a very sick, depressed, and desperate man. It is hard for those of us in the continental United States to fully understand his situation and the atmosphere at Guantánamo Bay. He has been cleared for release since 2009 and one can only hope that that release will take place shortly.”

Among other things, lawyer for Dhiab wanted the judge to order the Navy medics to leave in the nasogastric tube for several days, rather than having nurses insert it once or twice daily to pump a nutritional shake into Dhiab’s stomach. 

She declined, agreeing with medical staff affidavits that the length of the tube could be a weapon used to “asphyxiate himself or other detainees.”

A torture expert who examined Dhiab, Dr. Sondra Crosby, “admitted in her testimony that if a detainee was psychotic, combative, suicidal, or generally causing risk to himself or others, removing the tube between feedings would be appropriate and safer.” 

Kessler was, however, critical of the prison’s sometime refusal to let the captive go to his forced-feedings in a wheelchair but noted prison staff restored his wheelchair on the eve of a hearing she held last month.

During the October hearing, the detainee’s lawyers noted that some prisoners are treated better than others and are only shackled at one ankle and given comfortable chairs while undergoing their daily feedings. According to an affidavit by the prison warden at the time, Army Col.  John Bogdan, six captives who have been on hunger strike since 2007 were given comfy seats, communal forced-feedings and television distraction in an experiment that sought to get them to stop their food protest.

This week, Bogdan’s successor said in an interview that the experiment has ended. Only detainees who require so-called one-point restraint “for medical necessity” now get it, Army Col. David Heath said in an interview Friday.

Meantime, 16 media organizations are still seeking release of some 32 video recordings provided as case evidence. Kessler had initially ordered their release, with U.S. troops’ faces redacted, then issued a stay so the government can decide whether to appeal her release order.