On the night that Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election,
21-year-old Mohammed el Gharani was sitting in a segregation cell in
Guantanamo Bay's high security Echo Block.
He remembers the excitement among his fellow prisoners at the
prospect of an Obama presidency. "Everyone was very hopeful; people
were saying he was going to change things, that he would close the
prison," Gharani, who was released in June, says.
"Even the guards were telling us that if he won, things would improve for us."
They were to be disappointed. A year after Obama's election win, Al
Jazeera has learnt that despite the new president's pledge to close the
prison and improve the conditions of detainees held by the US military,
prisoners believe that their treatment has deteriorated on his watch.
Authorities at the prison deny mistreating the inmates, but
interviews with former detainees, letters from current prisoners and
sworn testimony from independent medical experts who have visited the
prison have painted a disturbing picture of psychological and physical
abuse very much at odds with White House rhetoric on prisoner
While no-one is alleging a return to the early days of the prison,
when detainees were subjected to "enhanced interrogation" techniques
that are today widely regarded as torture, prisoners say day-to-day
life at Guantanamo has become harder under the Obama administration.
Within days of Obama's inauguration and subsequent announcement that
he would close Guantanamo, prisoners say authorities introduced new
regulations and revoked previous privileges at the prison.
"They took away group recreation for prisoners in segregation, which
was the only time we saw anyone," Gharani remembers. "They took away
the books we had from the library. They even sprayed pepper spray into
my cell while I was sleeping, so I'd wake up unable to breathe."
Gharani says he was beaten so badly by guards that he is still suffering pain today.
Al Jazeera has obtained letters written by those currently being
held in Guantanamo that tell a similar story. In one, written in March,
a prisoner, who has asked that he remains anonymous for fear of
repercussions, says he is writing to "depict to what degree our
conditions inside Guantanamo detention have deteriorated" since Obama
"I am in the very same cell, wearing the same uniform, eating the
same food, yet treated much worse compared to mid-2008," the prisoner
writes. "We are unable to understand the goals of the policy of more
restrictions and inflexibility."
According to the letter, prison authorities inflict "humiliating
punishments" on inmates and prisoners face "intentional mental and
"The situation is worsening with the advent of the new management,"
the prisoner writes, noting, like Gharani, that the new rules were
imposed in January this year. Conditions, he says, "do not fit the
lowest standard of human living".
Separately, two prisoners have complained to their lawyer that their
belongings, including their bedding, were removed from their cells on
several occasions for no reason. Each time, they were told that the
removal was a "mistake," and the belongings were returned, only to be
More disturbingly, the same two prisoners say that during the
Islamic holy month of Ramadan, their recreation time was moved to
prevent them from taking part in traditional group prayer.
Using religion to punish prisoners is illegal under international
law. Authorities at Guantanamo deny the prisoners are kept from
practising their religion, although they concede that recreation times
are sometimes moved "due to operational needs".
They say that personal belongings are not removed from cells "unless
detainees misuse the items"; the prisoners categorically deny that they
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which monitors
prisoner treatment at Guantanamo, declined to comment on specific
allegations at the prison, but says that it recognises the cumulative
effect low-level abuse can have on the well-being of prisoners in
"In some cases, a single act may amount to torture," ICRC spokesman
Simon Schorno says. "In others, ill treatment may be the result of a
number of methods used over time, which, taken individually and out of
context, may seem harmless."
For the Guantanamo prisoners, avenues of protest against their
treatment are limited and many have resorted to hunger strikes. Now
there is concern that the force-feeding regime to which hunger strikers
are subjected is having a detrimental effect on their mental and
Abdul Rahman Shalabi has been on hunger strike since August 2005.
He has been force-fed twice a day by Guantanamo personnel, who insert a
feeding tube through his nose in order to administer a liquid diet
aimed at keeping him alive.
But independent doctors who have evaluated him say that the
insertion of the tube has done permanent damage to his nose and throat,
making inserting new feeding tubes difficult and stopping him from
receiving the calories he needs.
His lawyers say that persisting with the current treatment could
be doing more harm than good. Shalabi was hospitalised in March, and
his weight has dropped to just 107 pounds, 30 per cent below his ideal
body weight and at the threshold of major organ failure.
Shalabi's lawyer, Jana Ramsey, is bringing a case aimed at forcing
the government to allow medical specialists to work with Guantanamo
personnel to prevent the further weight loss she says is inevitable
if his current treatment persists.
"While participating in the strike, Abdul Rahman has, among other
things, been overfed to the point of vomiting, had tubes inserted and
removed repeatedly until his nose bled, choked until he passed out and
been blasted by pepper spray more times than he can remember," she says.
"He is now dangerously underweight. We are deeply concerned that the
medical staff at Guantanamo have no plan to keep Abdul Rahman from
starving to death."
As part of the case, Ramsey arranged for independent medical experts
to examine Shalabi at the prison over the summer. Dr Sondra Crosby, an
ear, nose and throat specialist who examined him in August, said that
without a change in treatment, the prisoner will die.
"Mr Shalabi has been on a hunger strike for four years, and only
recently has his condition severely deteriorated," her testimony notes.
His current treatment is also having a negative impact on his mental
health, experts have found. Dr Emily Keram, a psychiatrist who
evaluated him in July, told the court he was suffering from
post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression.
"Mr. Shalabi exhibits symptoms and disorders consistent with his
reports of coercive interrogations and other mistreatment," she said,
adding that some of this trauma occurred this year.
"The medical records do indicate that Mr. Shalabi was subjected to
Forced Cell Extraction in connection with his feeding multiple times
per day through the months of January and February. Mr Shalabi's
psychological symptoms are consistent with the distress he reported
experiencing as a result of these extractions."
Shalabi himself attributes his weight loss to his treatment at the prison.
"My weight has dropped from sadness and provocations, daily
humiliations and harassments and the sickness," he says in a letter
written in September. "I am a human who is being treated like an
Authorities at Guantanamo deny that hunger strikers are subject to
different treatment to other prisoners and say that no-one is being
"All allegations of abuse are fully
investigated and if warranted, further action taken," says Lieutenant
Commander Brook DeWalt, a military spokesman for the prison. "As with
any facility of this nature, we receive many allegations and we
investigate any claim, no matter what the source, and take appropriate
action when warranted."
But lawyers say that efforts to raise these issues with the relevant authorities have been met with inertia.
Ahmed Ghappour, who represents Guantanamo prisoners, has lodged
several requests to initiate investigations since Obama took office.
"I have requested four investigations regarding prisoner abuse just
this past year," he says. "The military responded to my first request
indicating that they would investigate, but have been radio silent
Released after a federal court found him to be entirely innocent,
Mohammed el Gharani is now adjusting to life outside prison. He says
that the allegations made by current inmates match his experience of
Guantanamo during the months leading up to his release.
"I recognise all of this," he says. "There are still more than 200
people in Guantanamo. Since Obama became president, less than 20 have
been released. I don't know why, but he has broken his promises."