Bob Egelko / San Francisco Chronicle – 2008-08-17 23:20:16
(August 17, 2008) — Sami al-Hajj is one of scores of Guantanamo prisoners who have been forcibly fed after going on hunger strikes to protest their captivity or the conditions at the U.S. naval base.
The protests became widespread in 2005. A military spokesman said there were 131 hunger strikers at Guantanamo in September of that year and 84 at the end of December, when authorities decided to crack down.
As described by the New York Times, guards began strapping the protesters into restraint chairs, often for two hours at a time, for twice-a-day feedings of liquids through nasal tubes. Afterward, the inmates were moved into isolation cells and monitored to make sure they didn’t vomit the liquids. Within about five weeks, the newspaper reported, all but three had resumed eating voluntarily.
Wouldn’t give in
But renewed hunger strikes have broken out sporadically at Guantanamo since then. Al-Hajj, a former Al-Jazeera cameraman, started his protest in January 2007, after he had been held at the base for 4 1/2 years. He was forcibly fed twice a day from the 21st day onward, but continued to refuse eating until after his release this May, said his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith.
Smith said he tried the same type of tube on himself once, to see how it felt, and found it extremely painful.
“I don’t care whether you call it torture,” he said. “It’s inhumane.”
The U.S. government’s policy is contained in federal Bureau of Prisons regulations. They authorize “involuntary medical treatment” of prisoners, including force-feeding, when a doctor determines that an inmate’s life or health is threatened by continued fasting.
‘Inhumane and Degrading’
The World Medical Association, with delegates from doctors’ groups in 80 nations, declared in 2006 that force-feeding of a mentally competent adult is “inhuman and degrading treatment” that violates medical ethics. The association said doctors can administer life-saving nutrients to protesters who have lost their capacity to make rational decisions or lapse into unconsciousness, but said a competent hunger-striker can also decide in advance to forbid even emergency measures.
Those standards are not binding on either medical disciplinary boards or courts. Some legal analysts, such as Gregg Bloche, a Georgetown University law professor, say courts should take note of a virtual consensus among medical groups and start classifying force-feeding as akin to torture in some circumstances. But U.S. and international courts have not interfered with the involuntary feeding of hunger strikers.
In December 2006, the United Nations war crimes tribunal approved the force-feeding of an imprisoned Serbian ultra-nationalist, Vojislav Seselj, after doctors said he might die in two weeks. He ended his 28-day hunger strike the next day.
A few state courts have taken a different view, including the California Supreme Court, which ruled in 1993 that a mentally competent prisoner who had become a quadriplegic in a prison accident had the right to refuse all food and medication.
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