Shona Murray in Guantanamo Bay.


’Screaming is a constant’ amid Guantanamo force-feeding

Officials deny that the force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay breaks any human rights rules or is a form of torture, reports Shona Murray in Guantanamo Bay.

’Screaming is a constant’ amid Guantanamo force-feeding

HUNGER striking prisoners are being force-fed at a ‘steady’ rate at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) prison, according to a senior staff nurse who administer the procedure at the facility. The prison refuses to disclose exactly how many detainees are force-fed, because of the undesired media attention the mass protest received in recent times.

Last year, the UN high commissioner for human rights issued a statement, denouncing as ‘torture’ and a breach of international law, the process of force-feeding or ‘enterally feeding’ prisoners in the manner undertaken by prison medical staff at Guantanamo Bay.

Since its inception in January 2002, as a prison facility to incarcerate Al-Qaeda-linked suspects, conditions for detainees at Gitmo has been the subject of strong debate among human rights lawyers, the international committee of the Red Cross as well as US Congress and the US Supreme Court, all of whom argue whether such captives ‘taken from the battlefield’ in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or elsewhere deserve basic protections under the Geneva Conventions.

Last year, concern for the treatment of those incarcerated resurfaced when authorities sanctioned the use of enteral or tube feeding of detainees during a hunger strike of over 100 prisoners.

Hunger striking prisoners are incarcerated in ‘Camp V’ — part of the main detention facility. It is occupied by all ‘non-compliant’ detainees — a term for those who are known to have ‘acted against a prison guard’ or ‘the rules of the facilities’ in the last few months. Camp V has a medical facility on site where the procedure is performed; some detainees are enterally fed more than once a day.

A senior military staff nurse from Camp V demonstrates the procedure which he says can last around 2 hours. Prisoners ‘have an option’ to drink the nutritional supplement they are going to be enterally fed with, he emphasises; ‘if they refuse’ they are ‘brought to the feeding location’.

Staff nurses and medics report that detainees often become aggressive and agitated when they are strapped into a restraint chair. The senior staff nurse, corpsman and army personnel wear a ‘splash mask’ to protect themselves from the onslaught of vomit and saliva that is aimed at them from rebellious prisoners.

"Once they arrive they are secured into a restraint chair; that’s for the detainees safety, for my safety and for the other staff’s safety as well," he explains, pointing a display of numbing and lubricating agents, feeding tubes and a splash mask, all placed on a sterile tray next to the restraint chair.

"Once the guards have determined they [the detainees] are secure in the restraint chair, I ask them if they have pain or nausea and if they are I offer them medications to help treat those conditions. Then I pick the appropriate size tube and I would ask them which nostril" they prefer.

"I insert it in to the nose and then down the oesophagus into the stomach; once it is inserted to a pre-determined depth, we secure it to their nose.

"The corpsman and I both listen while ‘flushing’ air in to see if we can hear bubbles to confirm placement and then after that we insert 10 cc’s of water."

"We then prepare an enteral feeding bag with the solution and some water.

"I wouldn’t say it’s a painful procedure, it’s more of a discomfort, but once the tube reaches your gag reflex you obviously have that natural desire to get whatever’s going down out.

"I’ve personally been splashed with vomit and spit by a detainee; I can honestly say I’ve never been splashed with vomit and spit before coming down here [to Guantanamo]."

Screaming "is a constant," he admits.

Recounting one of the more recent occasions where a detainee lashed out during an enteral feed he explains: "Whenever I was close to him he vomited on me, it got on (sic) my splash shield, some in my hair; I completed the procedure, made sure he was safe and left the room."

Brigadier General Marion Garcia, deputy commander of, Joint Task Force Guantanamo says the characterisation of the process as ‘torture’ is "unfounded", and "not an educated description of it". She also refuses to consider the procedure as ‘force-feeding’ when asked about it: "you use the term force-feeding and right off the bat I don’t like that term; there are some detainees who for peaceful protest reasons have decided not to eat as much as they should, but the procedure has been sanctioned, it’s not something that we’re the only ones doing it; it’s a medical procedure."

Some 775 prisoners have passed through Guantanamo Bay from the first days of the US’s drive to capture, interrogate and incarcerate some of the biggest players in Al-Qaeda led terrorism.

Five of the most important suspects from the 9/11 attacks are imprisoned in Gitmo, not least of who is Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, a key lieutenant of Osama bin Laden and the apparent ‘mastermind’ behind 9/11.

Nine prisoners have died in total, 154 remain.

Seventy-seven of these have been cleared for transfer and many others remain incarcerated without charges based on the belief that they pose a threat to US security, despite the lack of evidence against them.

The military commissions taking place in Guantanamo Bay are in the process of sifting through dense legal argument regarding the likely makeup of the case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammad et al. Much of the concern for defence lawyers is the use of evidence obtained through torture. Many witnesses as well as the defendants were subjected to government sanctioned ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, mainly involving water-boarding; a CIA interrogation memo from 2005 showed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was water-boarded 183 times in March 2003 alone.

Torture or ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ as a method of extrapolating information from suspects has long been documented as central to the technique used by the CIA in black-sites worldwide, particularly in Afghanistan. But it has always been officially denied in Guantanamo Bay, despite the fact that vice president Dick Cheney admitted that it was condonable in such mitigating, war-time circumstances.

During this Bush era, detainees at Gitmo were kept in open air prison cells in ‘Camp X-Ray’ where prisoners were taken from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Europe and elsewhere. According to a senior staff sergeant when they first arrived they had their eyes covered so they "couldn’t see where they were, or who they were with".

Images of detainees in their orange jumpsuits ferried on makeshift stretchers from the interrogation sheds to the metal, barbed wire cells, defines Guantanamo Bay in the much of public’s conscience. The military insists this method of transport was necessary for the well-being of the detainee.

Camp X-Ray’s cells are made out of metal, wrapped in chain link fence with barbed wire and a concrete slab for a floor. It’s an outdoor facility with no shelter from the sweltering sunlight.

"As far as I know" there was ‘no torture’, during interrogation, "just questioning", said the sergeant.

In recent years, Gitmo has modernised, and the majority of prisoners are housed in either the aforementioned Camp V, or ‘Camp VI’, occupied by ‘compliant’ detainees who are given some minor privileges like extra books and a small common area.

As Yet as far as the UN and other human rights activists are concerned as long as ‘torture or inhuman treatment’ in the form of force-feeding continues, Gitmo will never be an acceptable place for human beings no matter the circumstances.

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