Mar. 1, 2006 –
Faced with growing public attention on a dramatic fast undertaken by detainees at GuantÃ¡namo Bay and the possibility that some captives might actually starve themselves to death, prison officials used coercive measures to convince hunger strikers to eat. The tactics have given rise to charges that the much-celebrated torture ban signed into law late last year saw its first known violations within weeks of passage.
Worried that deaths from an enduring hunger strike might provoke additional international outcry over GuantÃ¡namo, guards allegedly resorted to torture and humiliation in a coercion campaign attorneys for the detainees say clearly violated the untested torture amendment Congress passed late last year.
Lawyers representing GuantÃ¡namo captive Mohammed Bawazir filed an emergency injunction in federal court Friday to stop what they termed the "torture" of their client "in a successful effort to force him to abandon his five-month-long hunger strike."
The US Military has held Bawazir prisoner at GuantÃ¡namo without charges since early 2002, according to his attorneys.
"Whether Mr. Bawazir will resume his hunger strike is unknown," the attorneys wrote in the complaint, made public yesterday. "He has repeatedly expressed a desire to die rather than live in confinement at GuantÃ¡namo. Regardless of whether [his captors] agree with his decision or believe they are entitled to force-feed Mr. Bawazir to prevent him from dying, [they] are not free to enforce their will through torture."
According to his counsel, Bawazir had refused to feed himself for months. Shortly after he joined the hunger strike, prison personnel started feeding Bawazir against his will, using a tube threaded through his nose and into his stomach. Eventually, the lawyers said, Bawazir allowed the nasal-gastric tube to be left in place between feedings to avoid the pain of reinsertion each time.
But in December, officials decided to use more aggressive methods to convince striking detainees like Bawazir to eat. The military had been trying to break the hunger strike through force-feeding for months, after finally acknowledging to media outlets that detainees were attempting to take their own lives. In an interview with The NewStandard last year a military spokesperson but chalked resistance up to an Al-Qaeda tactic to gain sympathy.
Attorneys representing the detainees said their clients are protesting the conditions at GuantÃ¡namo and the lack of any legal remedy for their prolonged detentions. The military holds more than 500 suspects at the island detention center. Only a handful have been charged with crimes.
General Bantz J. Craddock, head of the US Southern Command, told the New York Times earlier this month that soldiers had strapped detainees into "restraint chairs" during force-feedings as a life-saving measure so that detainees could not intentionally vomit up their nourishment.
But Craddock admitted there was another goal: to make life difficult for the striking men. "Pretty soon it wasn't convenient, and they decided it wasn't worth it," he told the Times in an interview. "A lot of the detainees said: â€˜I don't want to put up with this. This is too much of a hassle.â€™"
To Bawazir, however, who alleges through his attorneys that he was subjected to the new regimen from January 11â€“22, 2006, the restraining chair and other coercive methods were more than just a "hassle."
According to the complaint, soldiers began removing the nasal tube between feedings and insisted on reinserting it at each force-feeding. They also left him strapped to the dangerous chair for up to two hours at a time, the maximum allowed by the manufacturer. And, the complaint also alleged, the soldiers poured large amounts of liquids into Bawazirâ€™s stomach and then refused to allow him to go to the bathroom, causing cramping, vomiting, diarrhea â€“ eventually forcing Bawazir to urinate and defecate on himself.
Lawyers with the firm Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, who are representing Bawazir, note that both the US Constitution and international law explicitly ban this type of treatment.
Additionally, it violates the Detainee Treatment Act pushed into law by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) at the end of 2005. The Act reads: "no individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
Since Bawazirâ€™s medical records show he was compliant up to the date he was first strapped to the restraining chair, his representatives say the new treatment can only be construed as punishment for continuing to refuse food. They say jailers also placed their client in solitary confinement in January.
The attorneys also allege guards subjected Bawazir to cold temperatures, the discomfort of which his ailing health only exacerbated. This treatment, along with the pain and humiliation inflicted by force-feeding and the denial of bathroom facilities, violate the ban, Bawazirâ€™s defense team alleges.
"Mere days after signing the McCain Amendment, the Bush administration engaged in some of the most flagrant acts of torture that have occurred in GuantÃ¡namo," said Gitanjali Gutierrez, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), in a press statement. CCR is a nonprofit legal organization assisting with the case.
"The horrific misuse of the emergency restraint chair and the medical abuses served no purpose other than to terrorize nonviolent prisoners into ending their hunger strike," continued Gutierrez. "Senator McCain led an important fight to ban torture, but will he stand up for it now that the Bush Administration is breaking the law?"
The Justice Department has not responded publicly to the allegations because it has not yet filed its response in court. According to Pentagon spokesperson Navy Lieutenant Commander J.D. Gordon, Defense Department officials "believe that preservation of life through lawful, clinically appropriate means is a responsible and prudent measure for the safety and well-being of detainees," the Washington Post reported.