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ACLU Calls For End To Inhumane Force-Feeding Of Guantánamo Prisoners

light of recent media reports that 25 hunger striking detainees at
Guantánamo are being force-fed through tubes in their noses, the
American Civil Liberties Union sent an urgent letter to Defense
Secretary Robert Gates urging him to end the inhumane and unlawful
practice. The letter asks Secretary Gates to allow independent medical
professionals to review and monitor the status of hunger-striking
detainees in a manner consistent with international ethical standards
and to order authorities at the detention facility to revise any
procedure that authorizes force-feeding of detainees.

The ACLU’s letter states that 30 of
the 250 men detained at Guantánamo are on hunger strikes, apparently
taking the extreme measure in order to protest their indefinite and
arbitrary detention at the prison. According to the letter,
force-feeding contravenes U.S. domestic and international law and is
universally considered to be a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading

President-elect Obama has committed to closing the prison at Guantánamo, which is approaching its seventh anniversary.

The full text of the ACLU’s letter to Secretary Gates is below and available online at:

January 9, 2009

Dr. Robert M. Gates
United States Department of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301-1000

Dear Secretary Gates,

I am writing to bring your attention
to the cruel, inhuman, degrading and unlawful treatment of the thirty
hunger striking detainees currently held at the Guantánamo Bay
detention facility. 

This recent wave of hunger strikes
at Guantánamo coincides with the eve of the seventh anniversary of the
opening of the controversial detention facility that President-elect
Obama has committed to closing. According to press reports, thirty of
the 250 men currently detained at Guantánamo are on hunger strike, the
highest number in months. These detainees, none of whom have been
charged with a crime, appear to be taking this extreme measure in order
to protest their indefinite and arbitrary detention, conditions of
confinement and lack of meaningful access to courts. By refusing food,
these detainees hope to bring public attention to these matters of
international concern.

Detainees at Guantánamo who refuse
nine consecutive meals are classified as being hunger strikers.
Twenty-five of the thirty men classified as such are now being
force-fed through tubes inserted in their noses. These twenty-five
detainees have refused food for twenty-one consecutive days and/or
weigh less than eighty-five percent of their weight on arrival at the
detention facility, according to Pauline Storum, Deputy Commander for
Public Affairs for Joint Task Force Guantánamo.

Approval for the force-feeding
procedure is acquired through sign-off from both a doctor and the
prison camp’s commander. The unlawful force-feeding procedure requires
that guards and medical professionals strap the detainee “into a chair,
Velcro his head to a metal restraint, then tether a tube into the man’s
stomach through his nose to pump in liquid nourishment twice a day.”3
Two of the striking detainees have been force-fed through tubes in
their noses since August 2005. One of these detainees, Imad Hassan, a
thirty-year old Yemeni, has been fed through a tube periodically for
the last three years and suffers from digestive and pancreatic
problems, among other severe health issues.


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Debilitating risks of force-feeding
include major infections, pneumonia and collapsed lungs. Five detainees
held at Guantánamo have died in custody since the facility opened in
January 2002. Four of these detainees allegedly committed suicide as an
apparent consequence of the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment they
suffered from and the despair they experienced while being indefinitely
detained without meaningful access to courts and fair trials. A 2006
joint report submitted by five independent human rights experts of the
United Nations Human Rights Council (formerly the Commission on Human
Rights) found that the mistreatment of detainees at Guantánamo has had
profound and long-term mental effects on many of them and that
conditions of confinement have led to individual and mass suicide
attempts, widespread and prolonged hunger strikes and over 350 acts of
self-harm in 2003 alone.

Force-feeding is universally
considered to be a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The
aforementioned 2006 United Nations report authoritatively declares that
the manner in which detainees are force-fed and the ethics and legality
of the practice of force-feeding, regardless of the manner in which it
is undertaken, are matters of grave and distinct human rights concerns.
The report additionally stated that the confirmed force-feeding of
detainees on hunger strike amounted to torture as defined in Article 1
of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
Treatment or Punishment which the United States ratified in 1994.

The report also asserts that doctors
and other health professionals authorizing and participating in
force-feeding procedures on detainees are in violation of the rights to
health and other human rights, including those outlined in the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which the United
States ratified in 1992. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to
Health shared in the same communication that he had “received reports,
many confirmed by investigations of the United States military, that
health professionals in Guantánamo Bay have systematically violated
widely accepted ethical standards set out in the United Nations
Principles of Medical Ethics and the Declaration of Tokyo [of the World
Medical Association (WMA)]. . . Alleged violations include . . . being
present during or engaging in non-consensual treatment, including
drugging and force-feeding."

In its 1975 Declaration of Tokyo,
the WMA prohibited force-feeding and advised “where a prisoner refuses
nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an
unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a
voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed
artificially.” The WMA’s subsequent 1991 Declaration of Malta
reinforces that “forced feeding contrary to an informed and voluntary
refusal is unjustifiable” and recognizes the hunger strike as a “form
of protest by people who lack other ways of making their demands
known.” Finally, the WMA’s Declaration on Hunger Strikers states,
“Forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable. Even if intended to
benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of
physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment.” The
American Medical Association is a member of the WMA.

The Department of Defense policy
allows health professionals to force-feed a detainee when his hunger
strike threatens his life or health. The aforementioned 2006 United
Nations report renders this United States policy to be “inconsistent
with the principle of individual autonomy, the policy of the World
Medical Association and the American Medical Association, as well as
the position of [International Committee of the Red Cross] doctors.”

Finally, the practice of forced
feeding constitutes a violation of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005
which prohibits the “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or
punishment” of detainees “regardless of nationality or physical
location”, treatment which includes force-feeding. Force-feeding may
also be in violation of U.S. Supreme Court holdings in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health and Washington v. Glucksberg that individuals necessarily possess a fundamental right to refuse lifesaving medical treatment.

We respectfully and urgently request
that you immediately order the prison camps commander to cease all
force-feeding of detainees who are capable of forming a rational
judgment and are aware of the consequences of refusing food. We also
urge you to allow independent medical professionals to review and
monitor the status of hunger-striking detainees in a manner consistent
with international ethical standards. We also request that you order
authorities at the detention facility to revise any procedure that
allows force-feeding of detainees. In light of the dire and devastating
consequences of force-feeding on hunger-striking detainees at
Guantánamo, we respectfully request your immediate attention to this


Jamil Dakwar
Director, Human Rights Program
American Civil Liberties Union

Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, Department of Justice
Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, U.S. Senate
Acting Inspector General, Gordon Heddell, Department of Defense
President of the American Medical Association, Dr. Nancy Neilsen


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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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