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Does Force-feeding Guantanamo Prisoners on Hunger Strike Violate Their Rights?

April 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Over half of the inmates at Guatanamo Bay Prison are refusing to eat, protesting the length of their detention, legal limbo and quality of life. Ray Suarez talks with Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald about the origins of the protest and the question of self-determination when it comes to the prisoners' hunger strike.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the hunger strike, I’m joined by a reporter who’s logged more hours in Guantanamo than any other journalist, Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald.

Carol, welcome.

More than a dozen are now being force-fed. How is the determination made which prisoners are restrained and fed by force?

CAROL ROSENBERG, Miami Herald: The military says they have a calculus that looks at how much weight has been lost, how much malnutrition exists in an individual, and basically how sick they are.

They can skip meals for days on end, but there’s a point at which when their weight drops down to a certain percentage below healthy body weight that they start the force-feeding.

RAY SUAREZ: Of the scores who are on hunger strike, how long have the longest prisoners been denying themselves food?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Well, Ray, there’s one man down there who has been doing this hunger strike since about 2005.

He’s been living off these tube-feedings for years and years. This has been a singular protest. What’s going on now is that this current hunger striker — hunger strike started probably in February, when the detainees say that they had a particularly aggressive search by the guards in which they perceived that the guards were having the linguists inspect their Korans, which apparently just uncorked all sorts of frustration and led to this latest hunger strike.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there in the international treaties that govern the way prisoners are treated areas that — parts, chapters, whatever, that cover force-feeding?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Well, you know, the head of the International Red Cross tells us that they oppose force-feeding, that actually prisoners do have the right to a certain measure of self-determination. And one of the things that they can do is choose not to eat.

The Pentagon has a different policy. And what they say is that they have developed these force-feeding protocols from the Federal Bureau of Prisons years ago when they were first confronted with the hunger strikes. So there are international human rights and medical organizations that say what the U.S. is doing down there, feeding them twice a day with these tubes tethered up their nose, down the back of their throat and into their stomach, a can of Ensure twice a day, there are organizations that say this is wrong, that they should be allowed to choose to starve to death if they want to.

RAY SUAREZ: Recently, there was a raid in the prison itself. What were the conditions that prevailed in the so-called communal areas? What had the authorities at Guantanamo allowed life to become for many of the detainees?

CAROL ROSENBERG: This raid took place in the showcase communal prison, camp six. This was a place where — which was closest to a POW camp than anything that had ever existed at Guantanamo.

Detainees lived in groups of 10, 12, maybe 18 at a time. They ate together at picnic tables. They prayed together. They were able to sit around and watch television together. They had free movement from inside the building where the picnic tables were out to enclosed recreation yards outside. So this was a fair amount of enclosed freedom with the guards on the outside looking in.

They would watch through cameras, monitors and they would watch from outside the fences, some of them which were actual fences. And what we were told when we went down there last week is that the detainees began to defy their guards in many, many ways over the months.

Among other things, I was told last week, to my surprise — because I had been there the month before — some of the prisoners had taken sticks and were poking the guards through the fences. You know, they had brooms there which they could use to sweep out their cells, so they apparently took these broom sticks and were poking the guards and provoking them.

They refused to eat. They refused to allow the food carts to come inside these communal areas. They controlled what came in and went out. And, most importantly, they took old cereal boxes and they covered up the cameras in their individual cells. And this was the thing that most concerned the Pentagon and the military that was running the place.

If they couldn’t look inside individual cells, if they couldn’t keep an eye on detainees in the corners of these collective areas, they feared that somebody would try to suicide or that somebody was starving himself and wasting away, and that they couldn’t keep eyes on him to realize that they had to force-feed him.

So they made a decision. After several months of this kind of defiance of the rules, they went in on April 13th right before dawn with these, frankly, strike forces. There — two of the teams had shotguns with rubber pellets. They all had shields and they had helmets. And they charged inside the recreation yards, where according to the military they might some resistance.

It wasn’t long. And they described injuries to both sides that were not serious, but people on both sides got hurt. And the guard force came in and pushed each one into individual cells. And they are now in lockdown. They are now inside these roughly 8-by-12 cells up to 22 hours a day being moved and shackled from these cells to small recreation yards, being moved from these cells to showers.

They have lost the ability to control their lives inside these communal blocks. And they’re in what they call lockdown. It’s a very different Guantanamo than the one we had seen throughout much of the Obama administration. This is much more of a doctrine of keeping people in individual cells, similar to what went on during the Bush years.

RAY SUAREZ: Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, thanks for joining us.

CAROL ROSENBERG: Thank you, Ray.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online later tonight, you can see additional excerpts from Ray’s interview with Carol Rosenberg, including more on those 86 detainees cleared for release who remain at Guantanamo.