While a U.S. court refused to stop the force feeding of Guantanamo Bay hunger strikers, its verdict to let prisoners have the right to sue over the procedure and other U.S. military abuses is being seen as a step towards justice.
Over a 100 inmates went on a hunger strike in February last year against the brutal treatment from prison guards and indefinite confinement.
The protest rapidly gained the media’s attention, prompting several non-governmental campaigns and movements. In addition, the reports issued by the Gitmo authorities differed greatly from the ones released by the detainees’ lawyers.
For instance, in April, the government claimed the hunger strike was being blown out of proportion since only 40 prisoners were taking part in it. However, lawyers said their clients informed them around 130 inmates were protesting.
Prison authorities responded to the strike by restraining the inmates in a feeding chair with their arms, legs and head strapped to it until the food was digested properly.
Though internationally it is a doctor’s duty to respect the protest and the striker’s decision not to eat anything, the American policy on the other hand, directs force feeding the prisoners for their own ‘safety and welfare’.
Moreover, U.K.-based human rights organization Reprieve, in collaboration with Bafta award-winning director Asif Kapadia and U.S. actor and rapper Yasiin Bey(aka Mos Def), came up with a four-minute film, showing how painful the force-feeding procedure actually is.
The video was based on leaked military documents revealing instructions, or standard operating procedures, for force-feeding detainees at Gitmo. It furthermore drew the ire of rights activists.
President Barack Obama has defended the practice at Guantanamo, telling a news conference last year, "I don't want these individuals to die."
Previously, prisoners couldn’t file lawsuits about conditions at Gitmo. However, the ruling on Tuesday by a panel of U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit granted detainees the right to sue over abuses at the U.S. Navy military prison in Cuba.
Although the force-feeding procedure wasn’t shot down, the inmates’ lawyers called the decision a step towards success, Reprieve stated in a press release.
“Detainee Emad Hassan, who has been on hunger strike and force-fed since 2007, said in a recent conversation with his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith: “I am so dehydrated that my tongue becomes dry like tanned animal skin. They can’t find a vein to take my blood. They always strap me to the chair for force feeding, whether I am vomiting or not. The chairs slope backwards and because I have terrible kidney problems it is very painful.”
Shaker Aamer, in a conversation with his lawyer in anticipation of the judgement, said: “This is one step towards justice. A general in charge of this place said they were going to make it less ‘convenient’ for us to go on a peaceful hunger strike. The way they force feed us is just torture, using the FCE [Forcible Cell Extraction] team to force us to the feeding room, using the torture chair to strap us down, using tubes that are too big for our noses, and putting the 120 centimeter tubes in and pulling them out forcefully twice each day, with each feeding. Instead of making matters worse here, they should treat us with respect, like human beings.”
As of now, 155 detainees remain at Guantanamo but the current number of hunger strikers is not known. The prison authorities stopped disclosing the details of the protest last December, saying it was no longer in their interest to publicly release the information.
However, Reprieve reports that at the latest count, 17 of the strikers continue to be force-fed, while the same numbers are not currently being force-fed.
President Obama told Americans in his annual State of the Union address on January 28 that 2014 should be the year to finally close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, as the military shifts away from a "permanent war footing” in Afghanistan. However, it’s highly unlikely that Obama will keep his word as he made the same vow at the start of his first presidency five years ago.