The Blog

Guantánamo PR Can't Obscure the Reality of Force-Feeding

The new motto is "Guantánamo: Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent." It is neither safe, humane or legal, however, if you are a detainee engaging in a peaceful protest against more than a decade of arbitrary detention. It is hardly transparent.

This week, as a landmark case against abusive force-feeding at Guantánamo Bay got under way, a US Freedom of Information demand by the indomitable journalist Jason Leopold quietly forced the prison's military authorities to reveal their "Proposed Public Affairs Guidance" - public talking points - for discussing the force-feeding of detainees who are on a long-term hunger strike.

Before proceeding any further, it is worth noting that most of the hunger strikers have long been cleared for release (more than fifty percent of the remaining detainees, many of them clients of my organisation, Reprieve). Last week I saw Shaker Aamer, for example, the last remaining British resident, and he has been cleared for seven years, more than half of the time he has spent without charges or a trial.

In a tradition that stretches back more than a hundred years, via Bobby Sands and Mahatma Ghandi, to the Suffragettes, the hunger strike is wholly peaceful; the only people who stand to suffer are the detainees themselves. And suffer they do. When I met with Yemeni Emad Hassan (another detainee who has long since been cleared) he was as emaciated as a Biafran refugee, which is hardly surprising given that he has been on hunger strike consistently since 2007. In response to this, then, the PR department has come up with its talking points.

It must be said that the history of Guantánamo propaganda is not very reassuring for those interested in transparency and the truth. When accused of holding juveniles, the military merely redefined the term and denied having any, notwithstanding the fact that it was later proven that some of the prisoners were 12 or 14 when they arrived at the prison. When condemned for force-feeding the prisoners, the military denied there was any force-feeding going on, although they had to concede the purchase of more than 100,000 cans of the liquid nutrient Ensure. The authorities then countered with the term "enteral feeding", coined to avoid the overtones of abuse. Eventually - risibly - they settled on the notion that it was not a hunger strike at all, but a "long term religious fast."

Despite Guantánamo's track record of public bobbing and weaving that would make Muhammad Ali proud, I was keen to see what their talking points would be. The release came at an opportune moment, in light of their unconvincing defense of their forcefeeding practices in federal court this week.

After all these years, I should have known better: the public talking points were, it turned out, not public at all. For example, the public affairs team anticipated sixteen questions from the media, labelled Q1 through Q15 (with an additional Q13a): an astonishing sixteen (100%) were totally redacted. Revealing what the media might ask is, apparently, a threat to national security.

Eleven of the answers were similarly blacked out. The answers that were partially revealed assert, inter alia, that "[i]t is our policy not to allow detainees to commit acts of self-harm". Apparently it is okay to inflict harm on the detainees, though, as the force feeding process that is intentionally designed to inflict gratuitous pain in order to punish the protesters.

We are told that "our policy is patterned after the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons policy". Perhaps it is, but it seems unlikely that the BOP would condone taking wheelchairs and prosthetic legs away from disabled strikers, or beating others (via another euphemism, the 'Forcible Cell Extraction') every day for months.

We are asked to believe that movement of detainees from one camp to another is merely because the prison has "a mix of detainees in both communal and single cell living" - it is deemed best not to reveal that anyone in the less harsh Camp Six who goes on hunger strike is immediately moved to Camp Five Echo, the feared disciplinary block that is like a SuperMax prison.

Finally, we are reassured that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) meets with the prisoners and makes recommendations - but the PR folk thought it best to leave out the fact that the ICRC's criticisms are required to be kept secret, and felt it advisable not to mention the one leaked report where the ICRC accused the Guantánamo medical personnel of "a gross breach of medical ethics and, in some cases, [actions that] amounted to torture..."

The original motto adopted by the prison was "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom." The same PR people thought it was a good idea that every soldier should salute a superior with a crisp "Honor Bound, sir!" To this, the officer was required to reply with his own salute, and: "To Defend Freedom, soldier!" When I first witnessed this outside the prison's branch of McDonalds in 2004, I'm afraid I laughed - I thought it was intentionally ironic, given that the base was established on Cuba (that bastion of freedom) in order to deny any liberty or law to the detainees. Eventually the motto was ridiculed by others into abolition.

The new motto is "Guantánamo: Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent." It is neither safe, humane or legal, however, if you are a detainee engaging in a peaceful protest against more than a decade of arbitrary detention. It is hardly transparent, if the purveyors of transparency censor both the questions and the answers that they believe reveal the truth about their task. It is time that America lived up to promises made - whether it is President Obama's many promises to close the prison or, in the meantime, the military's assertion that all is well there.