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Pleas for Mercy and Game of Thrones: A Gitmo Detainee's Letter to a Federal Judge

A longtime hunger striker wrote a letter to a judge asking her to stop the force-feeding at Gitmo. Shockingly, it actually made it to her.
Photo by Jason Leopold

A longtime Guantanamo Bay hunger striker has written a letter to a federal judge presiding over the high-profile case of another Gitmo detainee, appealing to her to “follow her faith” and put an end to the force-feeding at the detention facility.

“Your honor, you are human. Would you let anyone humiliate you. [sic] Spit on your face or let him abolish your existence! think about it,” Yemeni detainee Emad Hassan wrote in a recently unclassified two-page June 27 letter [scroll down for pdf] to US District Court Judge Gladys Kessler.


Hassan’s lawyer Alka Pradhan told VICE News that it’s unprecedented for a Guantanamo detainee to be able to “speak directly to a judge.” Pradhan has tried in the past to get Guantanamo’s strict security censors to clear letters written by other detainees to federal judges, but she was always rebuffed.

“We were surprised the whole thing was unclassified,” Pradhan said. “It’s amazing to see because it gives Judge Kessler an idea of what men are going through in their own words. Usually in a Guantanamo case the judge is dealing with a person she has never seen. There’s no way to make that human connection without this sort of evidence. This letter is the closest we can get to having the person’s face and voice in the courtroom."

A Guantanamo spokesman would not comment on how unusual it was for Hassan’s letter to have gotten to Kessler.

“Detainees are authorized to send and receive legal as well as non-legal mail,” said Navy Captain Tom Gresback, the prison’s spokesman. “Documents in question are part of ongoing litigation and therefore comment specific to their content cannot be made.”

In a declaration submitted with Hassan’s letter, Pradhan said, “Our instructions from Mr. Hassan are to respectfully submit the letter to Judge Kessler in totality. We make no representation regarding the substance of Mr. Hassan’s statements to Judge Kessler.”

Hassan is one of Guantanamo’s longest hunger strikers. Cleared for release by the Obama administration in 2009, Hassan has been “abusively force-fed more than 5,000 times since 2007 as part of the military’s efforts to break his hunger strike,” said his lawyers, who work for UK-based human rights charity Reprieve.


Pradhan said Hassan, who has been on a hunger strike to protest his indefinite detention, is force-fed twice a day.

“They still take out tubes and reinsert them everyday,” she told VICE News. “He will occasionally drink the liquid nutrient. One of his nostrils is completely closed up. He only has one working nostril. But it gets infected and sore. That’s why he tries to drink the liquid nutrient.”

Guantanamo now calls hunger strikes 'longterm non-religious fasts.' Read more here.

In his letter, Hassan described detainees being threatened if they refuse to drink their liquid nutritional supplements.

“Many times I write a letter to describe the events here in detail,” he wrote. “Specifically, the hunger strikes. I stop! I can’t keep up with it. I have to go with what is going now. As right now: the FCE [forcible cell extraction] team took him to be fed… It took ten minutes for his stomach to hold the formula then began vomiting horribly.”

He tells Kessler that “medical ethics in time of conflict is identical to medical ethics in time of peace.”

The identity of the other detainee Hassan is referring to in the letter is unclear, but Pradhan believes it’s one of her other clients, Syrian national Abu Wa’el Dhiab, who has been waging a legal battle to permanently end his force-feeding as part of a broader challenge over his 12-year imprisonment. Dhiab has also been cleared for release since 2009.


Pradhan said she thinks Hassan is describing policy changes that have been implemented since the arrival of a new Guantanamo warden and commander of the detention facility last month. “Every time you get a new commander, they will tighten up the rules if they had loosened before, and that’s what I think we’re seeing,” she said.

But Gresback, the Guantanamo spokesman, said there have been no major changes to the force-feeding policies.

'The purpose of the letter is to remind the judge that she is dealing with real flesh and blood human beings.'

“Enteral feeding provided by the medical staff at Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) to the detainees who choose to participate in non-religious fasting is prescribed following strict Standard Operating Procedures which are based on established medical protocols,” he said. “With the exception of modifying the SOP to now use a water-based lubricant, the SOP for enteral feeding at JTF-GTMO has not changed.”

He said any procedures that have been characterized as violent at Guantanamo “are in compliance with US law."

Interestingly, Hassan’s letter to Kessler, who he referred to as “the one who shows… empathy understandable and HOPE [sic],” is not the judge presiding over his own legal challenge to Guantanamo’s force-feeding procedures.

Kessler is the judge presiding over Dhiab’s case. In recent months, she has issued a series of unprecedented rulings, which included calling for a temporary halt to Dhiab’s force-feeding and ordering the government to produce dozens of videotapes that show him being forcibly removed from his cell and force-fed. Dhiab’s case is now on hold as he has been identified as one of a handful of detainees the Obama administration intends to repatriate to Uruguay.


“The purpose of the letter is to remind Kessler that she is dealing with real flesh and blood human beings,” Pradhan said. “Because you don’t have the [detainees] in court making a statement, this letter brings his actual voice into the courtroom.”

We talk to John Napier Tye, the US government's favorite new whistleblower. Read more here.

Recently, the judge in Hassan’s case ordered the government to produce videotapes of his force-feeding and cell extractions. The government has argued against releasing those tapes publicly, claiming it would pose a threat to national security.

In addressing Kessler, Hassan wrote that, “sometimes to be human you have to take a side. You are not alone in the road to justice.”

Hassan ends his letter by asking one of his attorneys to send him Game of Thrones.

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold