GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — The U.S. military has long insisted it employs only humane methods to keep hunger-striking prisoners alive at Guantanamo. That assertion is under new scrutiny due to a judicial order.
Attorneys for a Syrian prisoner have begun studying hours of video showing him being removed from his cell, placed in a restraint chair and fed by a tube with liquid nutrients.
They are looking for evidence of what he has portrayed as abusive force-feeding, akin to torture, during the months that he has participated in a hunger strike that drew the attention of President Barack Obama and led to a renewed effort to close the prison on this U.S. base in Cuba.
In May, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler said the manner used to feed Dhiab caused "unnecessary suffering" and imposed a temporary order barring the feeding procedure.
She lifted it a week later to avoid endangering his life from starvation, but ordered the military to turn over 34 videos of Dhiab being removed from his cell and fed. She has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday to discuss the status of the case.
"It's really kind of a modest thing to ask a court to order our military not to torture these men," lawyer Jon Eisenberg said about both this prisoner, Abu Wa'el Dhiab, and others who have been fed through a nasal tube while on hunger strike.
Lawyers, who have never been allowed to witness the procedure in person, said they expected to study the first batch of videos, about 10 hours of them, over the weekend at a special facility for viewing classified evidence near the Pentagon. They also plan to seek videos of at least three other prisoners.
"Of course, I expect it to be upsetting," said Cori Crider, a member of the legal team. "They say it's humane, but that's totally not the way Dhiab and dozens of other people have reported it to me."
Military officials, who call the hunger strike a propaganda stunt, reject the phrase "force-feeding." They say the video will show nothing more than guards and medical personnel doing their jobs in a difficult situation.
"We don't force feed anyone," said Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, who oversees the prison as commander of U.S. Southern Command.
There have been hunger strikes at Guantanamo since shortly after the detention center opened in 2002 to hold and question men suspected of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The practice of using a restraint chair for feeding began in early 2006 during a mass hunger strike that grew so serious authorities feared some participants might die. Using a modified version of a procedure adopted by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the military straps a prisoner down, inserts a flexible tube into a nostril and sends liquid nutrients, typically Ensure or a similar product, directly to the stomach.
In February 2013, a new hunger strike began. It totaled more than 100 prisoners at its peak, out of 154 in custody at the time, then began to taper off. Among the participants, according to his lawyers, was Dhiab, a 42-year-old who has never been charged and since 2009 has been a candidate for release and resettlement, if the U.S. can find a place for him.
Dhiab says he has been choked and painfully dragged from his cell, even when willing to go voluntarily, strapped down painfully and hurt by liquid being pumped in rapidly, according to an affidavit submitted to the court by Eisenberg. "They hurt me really, really badly. It was so much that I almost cried," it quotes Dhiab as saying.
Kelly says prisoners are strapped down only to keep them from injuring guards or members of the medical staff.
"A lot of people say, 'Why do you restrain them in the chair'? Only because I don't trust them with the health and well-being of my troops. I am not going to have one of my troops lose an eyeball," he said during an interview at the base.
Kelly described the feedings as largely non-confrontational and said many prisoners choose to drink the nutrition liquid on their own once they are put in the chair.
It's not clear if the public will get a chance to see the videos. During a visit to the base last week, an Associated Press reporter caught a rare glimpse of a detainee in the feeding chair and the scene appeared calm, but it was only a brief view.
There are now 149 prisoners at the base. Crider says that based on conversations with prisoners, the legal team believes about 34 are still on hunger strike and about 18 meet the guidelines for the feedings. The military stopped disclosing the number of hunger strikers in December.
Kelly said the military has changed its guidelines for designating hunger strikers. Previously a detainee had to skip nine consecutive meals for that status, and retained it until he ate a specified number of consecutive meals. That system allowed prisoners to gain hunger strike status while continuing to eat, and some even put on weight in the process, Kelly said.
"The whole hunger strike thing was kind of a joke anyway before. Now it's based on nutrition and a medical exam as opposed to missing meals," he said.
The general said "very few" detainees now qualify for the feeding procedure and he believes none are truly on hunger strike — "if the definition of a hunger striker is someone who is no-kidding attempting to hurt themselves by starvation."
Ben Fox on Twitter: https://twitter.com/benfoxatap