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Muslim chaplain speaks out over hunger strike by Guantanamo detainees

New York

Janice Hopkins Tanne

Muslim prisoners at the US base at Guantanamo Bay are on a hunger strike and some are being force-fed, Captain James Yusuf Yee, a Muslim chaplain and US Army officer who served at Guantanamo Bay for 10 months, told a meeting in New York last week.

Captain Yee’s assignment at Guantamo Bay ended in September 2003. He was then arrested, charged with espionage and crimes carrying a death penalty, but later cleared of all charges. He resigned from the Army in January 2005.

Last week [Note to subs: Oct. 5] Captain Yee told a crowded meeting sponsored by the Center for Constitutional Rights (www.ccr-ny.org ) at New York University Law School that prisoners at Guantanamo were on a hunger strike.

"The prisoners are human. They are Muslim men, husbands, fathers, brothers. They have families, wives, sisters and brothers, children. In the press they are portrayed as people who are in some way directly related to September 11. I found it hard to believe that all are connected, that they are all terrorists. Some 200 have been released," he said.

They were despondent and depressed after being detained without being charged, having access to lawyers, or being brought to court for nearly four years, he said. He described emotional distress and severe depression and said some prisoners had stopped talking and regressed to a child-like state because of stress. At least two had been "permanently" in the Guantanamo hospital and being force-fed. Now, he said, 18 were being force-fed.

Captain Yee is a graduate of the US military academy at West Point and served in the US Army for 14 years. A third-generation Chinese-American who grew up in a comfortable suburban household, he converted to Islam while in the US Army, studied in Damascus, and became a US Army Muslim chaplain, before being assigned to Guantanamo.

At the same meeting, Gitanjali Gutierrez, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights representing Guantanamo detainees, said the number of prisoners on hunger strike might have been as high as 250 of the approximately 550 prisoners still held at Guantanamo, although it might now be as low as 131. She said 21 prisoners were hospitalized, 20 of them being force-fed through naso-gastric tubes.

"The Department of Defense refuses to release the names of the men hospitalized and won’t tell their attorneys," she said. An Army spokesman told Reuters that the men on hunger strike were being closely monitored by medical personnel and were clinically stable.

Gutierrez said the detention policy in Guantanamo was based on the principles of secrecy, isolation, and dependency. Men were dependent on US guards for such things as water and toilet paper, she said. They were told that cooperation with interrogators would bring them better treatment.

"The isolation is severe," she said. Prisoners are not able to make telephone calls to their families or their lawyers, as prisoners in US prisons can. "Mail delivery is every six months, at best," she said.

A hunger strike is defined by the US military at Guantanamo as refusing nine consecutive meals. However, Gutierrez and lawyers representing some prisoners say that prisoners may accept meals and flush them down the toilet or pass them on to other prisoners. "Rolling" hunger strikes have been going on for some time; some prisoners refuse meals but later accept them while others begin refusing meals.

Gutierrez said, "The men are using their bodies and their lives to protest [their imprisonment]."

A spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which visited Guantanamo in late September 2005, said , "There is a hunger strike, the situation is serious, and we are following it with concern."

Last week [Oct. 5] the US Senate voted 90 to 9 to attach an amendment to protect military prisoners from abuse to a $440 billion bill funding the US military. The amendment’s main sponsor was Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. It would ban the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against anyone held in US custody. The amendment was supported by many retired US military officers, including Colin Powell, the general and former Secretary of State. It would require US soldiers to use only interrogation techniques authorized in a new Army manual.

The bill to which the amendment is attached has not yet been voted on in the House of Representatives.

"End the Abuse," said the Washington Post in an editorial. If the McCain amendment were upheld by the House, it "would curtail, at last, the policy of abuse adopted by the Bush administration for detainees in the war on terrorism. It would mandate an end to the hundreds of cases of torture and inhumane treatment, many of them qualifying as war crimes, that have been documented by the International Red Cross and the Army itself at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan and Iraq, and elsewhere....The amendment gives President Bush a chance at least to amend the record of abuse that will blot his legacy. Yet Mr. Bush is not inclined to accept this chance...the president stubbornly digs his dishonorable hole deeper." (Washington Post, Oct 7, 2005, page A22)

President George W. Bush’s spokesperson suggested the president might veto the bill.

Last year, the Center for Constitutional Rights won a Supreme Court decision saying that the men at Guantanamo had a right to use US courts to challenge their detention. So far no cases have reached the courts.

Lawyers with the international firm of Allen & Overy, working pro bono to represent 11 Yemenis, told the BMJ that a US federal district court in Washington, DC, had denied their urgent request to visit their clients, Guantanamo detainees who are on a hunger strike, in September. Their next scheduled visit is November 4-5.

The same firm, Allen & Overy, is this week appealing against a ruling regarding their previous complaint of ethics violations against Dr John Edmondson, commander of the US Navy hospital at Guantanamo, who is in charge of care for the prisoners. The original complaint said that he and personnel he supervised engaged in conduct that might have been in violation of medical ethics and was "unprofessional" as defined by the California Medical Practice Act. Doctors who serve in the US military must hold valid state licenses, as Dr Edmondson does in California. The Medical Board of California said it did not have jurisdiction and denied the complaint. (BMJ 2005; 331: 180) The law firm is appealing, saying the California board does indeed have jurisdiction and should investigate the charges.

The Red Cross supports a 1975 declaration by the World Medical Association that doctors should not participate in force-feeding but should keep prisoners informed of the consequences. The force-feeding issue came from the hunger strike of Irish republicans in 1981, when ten prisoners starved themselves to death.

Neither the World Medical Association nor the American Medical Association has made statements specifically relating to the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo or other US detention sites.

The World Medical Association launched a web-based course developed by the Norwegian Medical Association to help doctors working in prisons who detect signs of torture or other degrading treatment and are unsure about their loyalty to the state and to their professional ethical code (available at www.wma.net ). Last year [2004] the association’s then secretary-general, Dr Delon Human, said, "Physicians should in no way facilitate, condone or participate in the practice of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading procedures of prisoners or detainees. This ethical obligation applies to all physicians in all situations, including armed conflict and civil strife."

The American Medical Association has "a continuing dialogue with the Department of Defense" on the issue of treatment of prisoners. The association’s code of medical ethics prohibits any form of physician participation in torture, which it defines as "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatments or punishments during imprisonment or detainment." It also says that participation in torture "includes, but is not limited to, providing or withholding any services, substances, or knowledge to facilitate the practice of torture."

In June 2005, the US Department of Defense sent the medical association a letter reiterating its strong support for high medical ethics.