Guantanamo hearing’s surreal quality

Rare open sessions on “forcible cell extractions” and feedings provide a rare glimpse of US prison’s routine practices.

“One does not have to make very many salads to know that olive oil isn’t water-soluble,” said Steven Miles, internist and bioethicist at the University of Minnesota, by way of explaining why a salad-dressing ingredient should never be used to insert force-feeding tubes up a detainee’s nose, twice daily.

A water-soluble lubricant should be used as it doesn’t lead to long-term lung damage, as olive oil can.

“For some reason that is totally unknown to me, they were using olive oil for this man,” Miles said, referring to Syrian Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a detainee at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, whose case against the Obama administration is currently being heard in DC. Such is the surreal quality of argument in this case – the first of its kind in a US District Court.

It’s not about why Dhiab, who has never been charged with a crime, has spent 12 years of his life in prison under such conditions. Nor is it about why he hasn’t been reunited with his family even though he’s been cleared with release since 2009.

It’s about how the tubes are lubricated and the flavours of the supplements forced down his nose and into his stomach – which was done as often as twice a day.

Miles argued against the government’s assertion that inserting the nasal feeding tubes twice a day was necessary to avoid infection, saying that claim is not supported by medical literature and that feeding tubes could be left in for weeks.

Supportive evidence

In fact, evidence provided by the government itself supported Miles’s testimony: It entered a feeding tube into evidence but the instructions for the tube indicated that it should be considered for replacement every four weeks.

The doctor had earlier testified that the oesophagus is hardly a sterile environment – “We eat tacos … those aren’t sterile,” he had quipped.

From its persistent objections to the expertise of all three of the petitioner’s witnesses – all three physicians, one a retired brigadier-general – to the presentation of its own case, one thing was very clear: The US Justice Department (DoJ) did not think the case of a Guantanamo Bay hunger striker would ever be heard in a semi-open US District Court [although some classified evidence and testimony was provided to the judge in closed sessions].

Even though practically closed, the open sessions gave us a rare glimpse of daily Guantanamo routines – right down to the fact that Dhiab’s ankle braces, cotton socks and underwear were taken away from him was seen by the government staff as a medical decision rather than a punitive one.

The government presented its case purely in documentary fashion – no witnesses, just lawyers reading out portions of documents that indicate Dhiab was treated well by Guantanamo staff, who are properly trained on when and how to provide involuntary treatment.

In Judge Gladys Kessler’s courtroom, the petitioner’s legal team asked that he continue to have access to his wheelchair, that Guantanamo staff cease Forcible Cell Extractions (FCEs) and the use of five-point restraint chairs for his forced feedings.

‘Particularly egregious’

The government, the judge acknowledged, has reason to redact some evidence but, in an earlier order, declined to hold the hearing in closed court.

In that order, Kessler made one thing very clear: That the government’s request to prevent the public from “observing the credibility of live witnesses” was “particularly egregious” given how much publicity Guantanamo cases already had.

This case is a a real doozy: Yes, Guantanamo is a prison facility and providing healthcare there to those who resist it can be a challenge. Yet government attorneys are put in the position of defending practices the petitioner’s witnesses repeatedly referred to as “punitive” rather than medically necessary without presenting any witnesses of their own.

And just as Dhiab was unable to take the stand and speak for himself, the government too, was unable to produce witnesses this was a proxy hearing in every way.

Kessler, however, has ordered that the government turn over redacted recordings of Dhiab’s FCEs to the court by Friday and for the media outlets petitioning for access to those tapes to come up with a plan on how to release them to the public by October 20.

Assuming the DoJ does not file an appeal – a spokeperson told me “We are reviewing the decision and considering our options” – the videos in this case might be worth more than all the expert testimony in the world.

Follow @dparvaz

More from Features
Most Read