The force feeding chair at GITMO.
The ongoing hunger strike at Guantánamo is not the first at the military detention facility. Antiwar.com reported in 2009 about one prisoner who had refused to eat for years:
Ahmed Zuhair, a 35-year old Saudi prisoner at Guantánamo – and a father of ten – has been on a hunger strike since June 2005, at the start of a fraught summer at the prison in which up to 200 prisoners (over a third of Guantánamo's total population at the time) embarked on a mass hunger strike in protest at their ongoing – and seemingly endless – imprisonment without charge or trial, and also as a protest against the day-to-day conditions in the prison, where casual brutality was still widespread, and a severe regime of punishment was still in place.…There was a brief hiatus in the hunger strike in August 2005, when the prisoners were allowed to form a very short-lived Prisoners' Council. This secured some concessions from the authorities, including an increase in the amount of food they were given, and the implementation of a new system of punishments and rewards, which brought to an end the exclusive use of orange uniforms, and the introduction of a graded system that gave white uniforms to "compliant" prisoners, and tan-colored uniforms to those who were somewhere between "compliant" and "non-compliant." However, the authorities failed to effect major changes to how Guantánamo was run, and, after another violent incident, when an interrogator threw a mini-fridge at a prisoner during an interrogation, the mass hunger strike resumed, and was even more widespread than it had been before.
Four years later, lawyers for the imprisoned say 130 of the 166 remaining GITMO detainees are refusing food, and as many as 23 are being force fed, a practice the American Medical Association says is unethical and inhumane, and the UN Human Rights Commission says amounts to torture.
What exactly happens when the US military force feeds detainees who refuse food? Written testimony from one detainee, provided to his lawyer in 2008, paints an extremely disturbing picture.
The Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas at UC Davis provides extensive documentation of abuses at the Guantánamo detention facility in its Guanatánmo Testimonials Project, including testimony from people who have been tortured at the prison. Below is a letter written by detainee Ahmed Zaid Salim Zuhair to his attorney in August 2008, describing in gory detail what it's like to be force fed. You can read the letter in its original Arabic here.
UPDATE: It's important to note two things that I missed. First, Ahmed Zuhair was released from GITMO and sent back to Saudi Arabia in 2009, after his lawyers filed a habeas corpus petition and just weeks before his hearing. Attorney General Eric Holder told the press that "there was not sufficient proof to bring a case against him." Second, at the time of his release, Zuhair was the longest running hunger striker at the camp. Thanks to Darryl Li for suggesting I include these crucial facts.
To Attorney Ramzi Kassem
Thank you for your efforts to achieve justice, to restore it to its rightful owners, and for your struggle on our behalf.
Tears mixed with blood and pain; a big crime in the history of humanity. A letter from the final moments of this life. I am watching the biggest crime ever as I chronicle it with my weeping and the tears from my eyes for the torture I suffer along with the rest of the strikers. I am writing about the torture that happened to us today with the drops of blood that are coming from our bodies and our noses, filling the earth and bearing witness to the injustice and the torture the strikers have been facing for three years and some for two years. Their bodies have become weak and thin, physically and psychologically destroyed from the sequence of numerous torture methods used to force us to end the strike.
Now, after all these years and after hearing about the court’s decision [in Boumediene], we thought that they would give us our rights, even if that only meant the right of a sick human being who has been on strike for four years to humane medical treatment and feeding. But we found that things were the complete opposite of what we imagined and the situation is now different from before. They began to torture us physically without reason or justification. On Thursday 8-14-2008, many teams of soldiers and IRF teams [Initial Reaction Force—riot squads used to punish and intimidate GTMO prisoners] entered the cellblock in the morning. We were in our cells and did not know why this whole army entered our cellblock on this day.
Suddenly they began to ask us about the feeding and they told us that it will be done by force from now on and that the doctor has decided to accelerate the feeding, adding that we have no other choice but to end the strike. We asked to speak to the guards’ supervisor and to the head doctor in order to explain to him the situation, that we have been fed for more than three years in a different way that causes us much pain and many ailments and that the medical reports confirm this and the doctors know about it.
So what’s the reason behind this sudden change. We are now in an extremely poor state, more than ever before. And as he saw every day, even without accelerated feeding, the strikers are in pain and they throw up. So what will happen when they start the new way of feeding and our state of health cannot endure it? Or is it just another way of torture to force us to end the strike as happened with the previous strikers?
When they refused to allow us to speak to the chief of the guards and the doctors, we told them we wanted a translator to know exactly what they want from us. The translator came and he told us sincerely to be patient and not to refuse because they will use force against us, as we know, and that there are orders and measures in place for the soldiers to undertake all necessary kinds of torture on us including beatings and other methods and reminding us that we well know what the soldiers are capable of. He also told us that the people in charge were watching from behind the glass and that they had already issued the orders such that the best thing to do was to end the strike so as not to be tortured.
Suddenly, the soldiers began to put the shields and the masks on the IRF team members and held the sprayers for them. They went to the first striker and extracted him by force, tightening the handcuffs so much that we heard him scream and cry out that his bones were going to break. His hands and feet were bound very tight in iron shackles. They made him sit on the feeding chair, the torture chair, applying extreme pressure on him from all sides. Then they tightened all the chair’s numerous restraints on him until his stomach was about to explode, his arms were about to get severed, and his hands and legs were about to break. They also tied his head tightly to the point of cutting off circulation to his brain and tied straps around his face and eyes and throat and a tightened muzzle over his mouth in addition to other restraints that did not exist before. There were six soldiers, one of them standing in front of him holding his throat and his neck tightly and another soldier behind him pulling his head backwards and two soldiers on his right and another two on his left pulling his arms and a soldier holding a sprayer in front of him. They pressed on this striker’s throat until blood came out from him and the white muzzle on his mouth turned red with blood and yet the soldiers kept on pressing.
After all of this pressure his limbs stiffened and his eyes changed shape because of the strangling and the feeling of impending death. It was clear that he was going to die. The translator was standing there and he told the soldier that the prisoner is going to die but the soldier kept on strangling the striker following the orders he received. The translator couldn’t stand to see someone dying in front of him. So he hit the soldier on his back, and screamed at him to let him go because he’s going to die. The soldier let the prisoner breathe but kept holding his throat. Then the nurse came savagely with the tube and inserted it in his nose with astonishing force. The blood rushed out from his nose and the tube became stained with blood that dripped onto his clothes and the floor.
Without any mercy, she continued forcefully to insert the blood-stained tube into his stomach. She also accelerated the feeding until he threw up.
So, the intent is not to feed but to torture him to end the strike. This is how the feeding ended, with his body weary and sick from this ugly procedure and from the brutality. Afterwards, instead of returning him to his cell, they left him for a long time in this position to make him fear returning to the feeding chair, lest he be tortured this way or even more, leaving him no solution other than to end the strike and return to eating the normal food. Then they forced him back to his cell and threw him on the floor. We kept hearing his voice and cries from the pain in his body. In this way, we witnessed the terrorization and torture met by the first one of us.
We said the people in charge and the doctors had to come at once because this is torture and we won’t come out until the people in charge come. But it was too late; the thing had been decided and the soldiers already had the green light to act and torture us. They sprayed me from the window of the door using a big sprayer. I was about to die from the harshness of this spray. My face was burning and I couldn’t see a thing with my eyes and my clothes were drenched with the lacrimator from this spray which is internationally prohibited but they use it against the strikers who are no more than skin and bones.
Using this method, they entered my cell while I was in an extremely bad state, grabbed me forcefully, threw me on the floor and against the wall and beat me up badly with their hands all over my body. They grabbed me by my private parts and twisted my hands and feet until they became swollen and painful. They forced me out and put me on the torture chair and tied me up like the first striker from my head, my eyes, my throat, my shoulders, my stomach, my hands and feet. I felt pain all over. But the soldiers were not satisfied with the tight restraints. They kept on pressing me from all sides, focusing the pressure on my head, my throat and my neck until I felt like I was about to part with life.
It was then that the nurse came, harsh and brutal, and she inserted the tube. It felt like a blade cutting my nose. The blood began to rush out and the tube went into my lungs such that I almost suffocated. She pulled it out and tried again and the tube went into my lungs. Finally, the bloody tube went to my stomach and she then activated the feeding at full thrust. They know about my condition, that I can’t endure the acceleration and that I was fed in an extremely slow manner though I would still throw up. The object could only have been torture, nothing else.
I kept throwing up during the feeding process. My clothes and the floor became covered with blood and vomit. I remained a long time on the chair and the soldiers kept applying pressure on me so I wouldn’t be tempted to return to the feeding chair ever again. Then they took me to my cell and harshly threw me on the floor. They left and went to another striker. This was how they tortured us one by one until they had tortured all of us. One of the strikers fainted when they pressed on his neck. After they finished feeding him, they returned him to his cell where he remained unconscious for close to an hour until he woke up and heard the other strikers’ voices as they were being tortured. The extreme pain he was in motivated him to go to his bed to rest although he was otherwise unable to move.