Recently REPRIEVE, a human rights organization, released a video starring Yasiin Bey AKA rapper Mos Def undergoing the force-feeding procedure used on detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. He doesn’t last long, but who can blame him. A lot of reports on the video made the connection to the late and stubborn Christopher Hitchens, who volunteered to be waterboarded, lasted 11 seconds, then summarily renounced the practice as torture. The point to REPRIEVE’s video is much the same; Put an individual of status through a practice and give the audience an unfiltered view of what occurs every day in our darkest of places. It’s a hard video to watch, and it should be. Current force-feeding procedures involve feeding a long tube through an individual’s nose, then down their esophagus into their stomach, where a kind of gel is secreted to provide the individual nutrients or medication. For further details see the National Post‘s excellent graphic (top image).
As the video states, of the total 166 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, 120 are on a hunger strike, and 44 are currently being force-fed against their will, with that number surely to rise as time goes on. Being force-fed is not an easy process. It’s uncomfortable, painful, can lead to permanent damage or death, and is performed twice a day on each of those 44 people against their will. And most of all, much like Hitchens’ revelation, it most certainly is torture. But you don’t have to take my word for it. The World Medical Association, the confederation representing physicians worldwide, enshrined in their 1975 Declaration of Tokyo that the practice of force-feeding is considered torture, stating,
7. Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially. The decision as to the capacity of the prisoner to form such a judgment should be confirmed by at least one other independent physician. The consequences of the refusal of nourishment shall be explained by the physician to the prisoner.
But hey, they’re just a non-binding group of ninnies. Force-feeding can’t actually be that bad, I mean, people stick things up their noses all the time. What’s the problem? Well it’s a good thing Guantanamo Bay isn’t the first place to forcibly use the procedure, so we have previous case studies to go off of.
In 1912, Emmeline Pankhurst, political activist and leader of the British suffragette movement, was imprisoned in Holloway Prison after a protest march. There she and other suffragettes performed a hunger strike to improve their conditions but were force-fed. She described the aftermath in her autobiography,
“Sickening scenes of violence took place almost every hour of the day, as the doctors went from cell to cell performing their hideous office. … I shall never while I live forget the suffering I experienced during the days when those cries were ringing in my ears.”
In 1971, Vladimir Bukovsky, another political activist, was imprisoned by the KGB in the Lefortovo prison in Moscow. He went on a hunger strike, demanding a defense lawyer of his choice, and force-feeding was used to break him down. He described the process for the Washington Post,
The feeding pipe was thick, thicker than my nostril, and would not go in. Blood came gushing out of my nose and tears down my cheeks, but they kept pushing until the cartilages cracked. I guess I would have screamed if I could, but I could not with the pipe in my throat. I could breathe neither in nor out at first; I wheezed like a drowning man — my lungs felt ready to burst. The doctor also seemed ready to burst into tears, but she kept shoving the pipe farther and farther down. Only when it reached my stomach could I resume breathing, carefully. Then she poured some slop through a funnel into the pipe that would choke me if it came back up. They held me down for another half-hour so that the liquid was absorbed by my stomach and could not be vomited back, and then began to pull the pipe out bit by bit. . . .
And just recently, a New York Times Op-Ed by a Guantanamo Bay prisoner recounted this first hand experience,
I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.
I am still being force-fed. Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. Sometimes they come during the night, as late as 11 p.m., when I’m sleeping.
The question we need to ask ourselves at this point is why is this happening? And what are these detainees hunger striking over in the first place?
Of the 166 total detainees that remain at Guantanamo Bay, more than half have been deemed appropriate for transfer, their cases either proven innocent, not deemed a threat, or with nothing against them in the first place. Although the common perception is that these detainees have a reason for being detained, or have been held in Guantanamo Bay for so long for good reason, many of these people were actually sold into their detention, such as UK citizen Shaker Aamer. Starting in 2001 and moving well into 2002, 2003, and beyond, the US paid out bounties per head on captured Taliban and Al-Qaeda, which, as we know now, resulted in the capture and exchange of many innocent individuals. Since then, many of them have spent more than a decade undergoing torture, abuse, and isolation with no hint of a trial proceeding for years. The hunger strike began as a protest against the length of their incarceration and lack of judicial process, some preferring the possibility of death over indefinite detention.
The administration’s response has been characterized by a hot potato game of passing-the-buck. Congress has twice, once in 2011 and just recently in June 2013, blocked any funding towards moving the detainees into prisons on the mainland US, not wanting to look weak by drumming up fears of terrorists being held in Your Backyard and stinking of a crooked bureaucracy. Some of the original countries these men were taken from don’t want them back, and regulations for deportation state that they can not be deported to countries where there is a chance the detainee will be tortured by that country. Since the CIA has a pretty good handle on who does all the torturing across the pond, it excludes a lot of potential locations. Besides that, Yemen has offered to take back at least the 89 detainees who are Yemeni, but the US has previously been skeptical of Yemen’s ability to house the detainees, especially now that Yemen is seen as a new front-line for neo-Al-Qaeda operations. Supposedly Yemen is currently building an $11-million rehabilitation center designed to transition the prisoners into normal life, but it may be some time before that’s fully operational yet, and even that is no assurance that the US will hand over everyone. And yet, this still leaves many of the non-Yemeni detainees awaiting freedom without much recourse.
As it currently stands, the force-feeding of Guantanamo Bay detainees is a play by an administration trying to put ground between itself and the impending consequences of its actions. Unlike one Iron Lady, this administration doesn’t really have the thickness and capital to see any would-be hunger striker die from their protest, fearing it would create martyrs for the prison population and insurgents overseas, and political blowback at home. For now they’re satisfied with exchanging suffering for time. As Yasiin Bey states in the REPREIVE video, what is depicted is the standard operating procedure for force-feeding. After days, weeks, and months of struggle and tension, pain and anguish, it’s easy to see how frustrations could peak and animosities boil over, to a point where standard procedure goes out the window. Mistakes can be made, and the chance one will be made only increases as time goes on. This administration is rolling the dice twice per prisoner, eighty-eight times a day, 616 times a week, 18,840 times a month, and that number will only increase if nothing is decided. It’s the kind of reckless gambling that, when it comes to lives, will never pay.