Lawyers representing Guantanamo Bay hunger strikers were correct to demand to see videos of their clients being force fed. A US District Court ruled that 28 videos be made available to human rights attorneys, the first non-government employees to witness evidence of what is acknowledged by medical professionals worldwide to be a particularly brutal practice.
After reviewing the footage, Alka Pradhan, a member of the legal team representing Syrian national Abu Wa’el Dhiab, told Al Jazeera America, "I’ve had a lot of trouble sleeping this week as a result of watching these tapes." Another of Dhiab's lawyers, Cori Crider of human rights group Reprieve, said after seeing the tapes, "Bit by bit, tape by tape, this case is starting to reveal the ugly reality of Guantánamo."
Crider had previously stressed the importance of getting access to the video evidence. “We can’t let this evidence go the way of the waterboarding tapes — they might well be at the heart of the upcoming trial of Gitmo’s brutal force-feeding practices.” The lawsuit in question argues that Gitmo guards have violated the human rights of Dhiab and other hunger strikers by brutally feeding the men with nasal tubes while they continue to refuse meals.
Watching cruelty play out is more haunting than simply knowing about the fact of cruelty.
Crider's concern was founded. According to one detainee, guards have in recent weeks stopped recording the force feedings. If true, these allegations suggest an awareness on behalf of the US military command at Gitmo that their treatment of hunger strikers, if made public, would serve to further blacken the prison's dark record. As I've noted in the past, the logic behind filming force-feedings in the first place is baffling and troubling. It points either to a brash certainty that the footage will be kept close to official chests, or a chilling assumption that little fallout will come from the footage being released.
Reports of Dhiab's condition are disturbing to say the least. According to his legal team, he spends most of his time laying down because of kidney and back ailments, requires a wheelchair, and is confined to his cell except when forcibly removed to be forcibly fed. He has been held without charge in Guantanamo Bay since 2002.
The brutality of force-feeding has been well established by the international medical community. It is torture — both because it is excruciating and because it is the final straw in the stripping of an individual of their sovereignty. We can, I have argued, know this without video evidence. But if the visualization of horror had no affective power, then movies and TV shows would not contain torture. Watching cruelty play out is more haunting than simply knowing about the fact of cruelty. We have long known that Gitmo is a site of inhumanity; as, of course, have detainees' lawyers. It is telling, then, that this knowledge did not prevent Dhiab's attorney from suffering sleepless nights after seeing what he saw in those videos.
It's little wonder that the lawyers want President Barack Obama to “sit down and watch” the force-feeding tapes. Of course he is aware that Gitmo is a monstrosity. Human rights defenders rightly want him face it, "tape by tape," to be haunted himself.
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