Lawyers for a hunger-striking detainee at the US-run Guantanamo Bay detention centre have told a federal court that their client says his weight has dropped to under 90lbs (40kg) after the prison apparently changed its policy on force feeding a month and a half ago.
The lawyers for Ahmed Rabbani, who has been held at the facility without charge for the last 13 years, submitted a response late last week to a previously filed motion that called for an independent medical evaluation of their client.
They said Rabbani told them in September that the prison appeared to have changed its policy toward force-feeding hunger-striking prisoners.
According to Rabbani’s lawyers, the prisoner also told them in a phone call last week that he felt like his “body was eating itself up”.
Rabbani said it “seems like” the prison staff wants him to “come out of here as a corpse”, the lawyers said.
Rabbani and other detainees told their lawyers in October the prison’s policy for hunger strikers had changed, when, under the instructions of the Senior Medical Officer (SMO), medical staff “stopped tube-feeding the strikers, and ended the standard practice of closely monitoring their declining health”.
According to detainees, for the past 10 years the US has followed a policy of force-feeding hunger strikers when they have lost one-fifth of their body weight.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has issued guidelines stating that a “physician may order that treatment be administered without the consent of the inmate” when “after reasonable efforts, or in an emergency preventing such efforts, a medical necessity for immediate treatment of a life or health threatening situation exists”.
But according to Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of the international human rights organisation Reprieve, which represents Rabbani, the sudden change in policy, implemented on September 20, now allows the hunger strikers to get close to death before force-feeding will take place.
“The US wants to starve them [their clients] until their organs fail, and are half dead, and then force them again to keep them half alive for indefinite detention, purely as they cannot allow someone to die for PR purposes,” Stafford Smith told Al Jazeera last month.
Captain John Robinson, a spokesman for the US Southern Command (Southcom), which has oversight over the joint task force that operates Guantanamo, told Al Jazeera in mid-October that Southcom “continually monitors and evaluates detainees’ health and safety – including measuring their weight and body mass index as one indicator of their overall health”.
“If in the opinion of the medical provider, enteral feeding becomes required to preserve the life or health of a detainee, then in accordance with DoD Policy … and US Law, and similar to the procedures of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, we would enterally feed a detainee,” Robinson added.
He said that while Southcom cannot comment on individual cases, “there are currently no detainees who have a medical indication to receive enteral feeds”.
300 calories a day
Rabbani, a Pakistani citizen of Rohingya origin, began his hunger strike in 2013. According to Reprieve, the detainee, who was born in Saudi Arabia, was mistaken for an al-Qaeda suspect named Hassan Ghul in 2002.
Stafford Smith told Al Jazeera last week that although Rabbani had taken his advice to “take at least a small amount of food to try to limit the danger of catastrophic organ failure”, he was only “taking roughly 300 calories a day, normally in the form of a piece of fruit, and a teaspoon of honey in his green tea”.
On October 16, Reprieve and Washington, DC-based lawyer Eric Lewis submitted an emergency motion to the capital’s district court, seeking an independent medical evaluation for Rabbani, access to his medical records and the immediate cessation of the new feeding policy.
The US Department of Justice subsequently claimed that the detainee’s allegations about the new policy “are without merit” and that Rabbani is “not malnourished”.
In their October 16 submission, Reprieve and Lewis urged the court to immediately act, highlighting that in 2014 a judge had turned down a previous motion by Rabbani, asking that his force-feeding be stopped, on the grounds that “the government has a legitimate interest in keeping Guantanamo detainees alive”.
The lawyers argued that policy has been replaced with a policy of “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs” – a contradiction to the previous court’s ruling.
The lawyers told the court on October 16 that they feared Rabbani would “suffer irreparable medical harm and possibly even die – very soon – without this court’s intervention”.
Justice department responds
The justice department’s response to the emergency motion was submitted on October 27, but its contents were classified until November 7.
In an affidavit included with the submission, the Senior Medical Officer (a navy commander whose name was redacted), stated that, with reference to Rabbani’s case, he had concluded: “prior to September 20, 2017, that enteral feeding was no longer medically necessary to preserve his health and his life”.
The SMO also claimed that he had observed Rabbani eating in his cell, and added, “While I cannot confirm his daily calorie intake due to his attempts to obscure food consumption or hide food … I estimate his current daily consumption as at least 1,200 kilocalories”.
Stafford Smith said that Rabbani disputes the claims about his calorie intake; he also denies eating in his cell.
“I do not trust the SMO and I never could,” he told Stafford Smith in his most recent call.
It is not known when the judge in the district court, Judge Royce Lamberth, will make a ruling on the motion.
However, Stafford Smith told Al Jazeera: “Far more important than what the Guantanamo medical officer says is what he does not say: he offers no explanation for their sudden change in practice. And that is because, to tell the truth under oath, he would have to admit that it is a callous, manipulative and brutal effort to bully Ahmed out of his peaceful hunger strike.v
“For a medical professional to conspire in this is very sad.”
According to Reprieve, another client, Khalid Qassim, a Yemeni who has been at Guantanamo since 2002, told lawyers that the medical staff are no longer monitoring or recording the meals the prisoners miss.
“They are determined to stop the hunger strike by dirty means,” Qassim told his lawyers in a recent October phone call.
41 detainees remain
Despite promising to close Guantanamo when he took office in January 2009, former President Barack Obama left office having failed to do so.
His successor, President Donald Trump, meanwhile, promised on the campaign trail to “load it up with some bad dudes”, and in January he tweeted that there “should be no further releases from Gitmo”.
It is not known how many of the 41 remaining prisoners at Guantanamo are on a hunger strike. However, Rabbani and Qassim told their Reprieve lawyers last month that six men were on hunger strike, the lawyers said.
Reprieve believes that four of the six men, including Rabbani and Qassim, are among the 26 men who are on a list of those never to be released.
In a phone call with Rabbani last month, Stafford Smith said he asked whether the new policy was encouraging the prisoners to abandon their hunger strikes all together.
According to the lawyer, Rabbani said the new policy was having the opposite effect, with more detainees joining the protest.
Regarding his own case, however, Stafford Smith said that Rabbani told him that he does not want to die, but “after four years of peaceful protest, I am hardly going to stop because they tell me to”.
According to Stafford Smith, Rabbani added that he will “definitely stop when President Trump frees the prisoners who have been cleared, and allows everyone else a fair trial”.