For more than three months, the US military has faced off with defiant prisoners on a hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay, strapping down as many as 44 each day to feed them a liquid nutrient mix through a nasal tube to prevent them from starving to death.
The standoff, which prompted US President Barack Obama to renew his call to close the detention center, has grown to involve 104 of the 166 prisoners as of Saturday, and may be nearing a crisis point. Yet the experience of a former detainee demonstrates that a hunger strike at Guantanamo can be as indefinite as the open-ended detention that is at the heart of essentially every conflict at the military prison.
The men undergoing forced-feeding are not permitted to speak to journalists, but Ahmed Zuhair knows what the experience is like. Until he was released from US custody in 2009, he and another prisoner had the distinction of staging the longest hunger strikes at the prison. Zuhair kept at it for four years in a showdown that at times turned violent.
The military acknowledges a “forced cell extraction team” was repeatedly used to move him when he refused to walk on his own to where striking detainees were fed. He says his nasal passages and back are permanently damaged from the way he was strapped down and fed through a nasogastric tube.
Court papers show that Zuhair and fellow prisoners smeared themselves with their own feces for five days to keep guards at bay and protest rough treatment.
Zuhair, a former sheep merchant who was never charged with any crime during seven years at Guantanamo, stopped eating in June 2005, and kept up his protest until he was sent home to Saudi Arabia in 2009.
“Not once did the thought occur to me to stop my hunger strike,” he says.
Zuhair spoke in a telephone interview along with his lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York.
Since the prison opened in 2002, seven prisoners have committed suicide. It is the policy of the US Department of Defense to try to keep strikers alive. The feeding procedure is considered safe and its use has been upheld by the courts, said US Navy Captain Robert Durand, a spokesman for the detention center.
The medical personnel who conduct the feedings lubricate the feeding tubes, offer anesthetics to the prisoners and have rules for nasal rest to prevent long-lasting damage, Durand said.
Officials refer to the process by the medical term “enteral feeding” rather than “force feeding.” It involves restraining men with straps that resemble airplane seatbelts to a specially designed chair that looks like a piece of exercise equipment. Zuhair called it the “torture chair” and said he was left tied down for hours at a time, ostensibly so the liquid nutrient drink Ensure could be digested.
It is difficult to confirm the accounts of either prisoners or military officials. Journalists are not allowed to watch the feeding process or interview the men held at the prison.
In an editorial published on Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, two doctors and a professor of medical ethics urged Guantanamo’s prison doctors to refuse to force-feed hunger strikers, saying to do so is a violation of ethical obligations. It is an argument that has been made for years by human rights groups and detainee advocates.
There are risks to prolonged enteral feeding, including the possibility of getting liquid in the lungs or damaging the nasal passages, particularly when the person is uncooperative, said David Katz, an internist on the faculty of the Yale University School of Medicine.
The military began using the restraint chair at Guantanamo to feed prisoners in January 2006 after hunger strikers grew dangerously thin and officials feared some might die.
Then, as now, prisoners said they were striking over what they considered the reckless handling of their Korans by prison staff, conditions at the detention center and their indefinite confinement.
The military insists all its procedures are humane.
However, Zuhair, and others, have long maintained otherwise.
“During each force-feeding, my nose bleeds,” he said in a sworn statement submitted to the court by Kassem. “The pain from each force-feeding is so excruciating that I am unable to sleep at night because of the pain in my throat.”