Watching Yasiin Bey Be Force-Fed Guantanamo Style
In July, Reprieve launched the video of Yasiin Bey — better known as Mos Def — being force-fed according to the Standard Operating Procedure used in Guantanamo Bay. From our offices in London, it go viral. Meaning, as it was picked up by every major news outlet, posted on Twitter and Facebook by thousands and thousands of people. The brutal reality of what force-feeding in Guantanamo actually involves spreading wider and wider with every play, further and further with every click.
People were overwhelmingly shocked by the video’s contents. “Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) gets force-fed under standard Gitmo procedures. Can’t stand we’re doing this. Shameful,” said one tweeter. “Tell me this isn’t torture,” said another.
Reactions were so visceral, it seemed, because the video shows what it’s really like for the prisoners being force-fed. Not what it’s like to be tube-fed voluntarily in a hospital because you are ill, but what happens when a person who is deliberately not eating as a peaceful and desperate protest against their indefinite detention without charge or trial is strapped to a chair and held down while a tube is forced up their nose and down their throat in order to pump a liquid supplement directly into their stomach.
Throughout the day journalists were calling non-stop asking about our clients, about what was happening down in Guantanamo, about whether the US was going to force-feed people during the day during the holy Muslim fast of Ramadan. They wanted to know the results of our force-feeding motion which coincided with the video. We watched as the website we’d set up to encourage individual action -www.standfastforjustice.org — racked up days and months and quickly, to our astonishment, years worth of hunger strike in solidarity with the prisoners. The video and the #standfast campaign had tapped into a deep well of public sentiment: ‘we are outraged by what is going on in that prison and we will do what we can to object’.
Despite the support being overwhelmingly positive there were, as always, some people who decided to spout false drivel: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” And “People get fed like that every day in hospital, it’s not really that bad.”
In response to such messages, frustrating as they are, we simply have to reiterate the facts which speak for themselves: the vast majority of men in Guantanamo have not been charged, let alone given a trial. More than 52% have been cleared for release by the very government which continues to hold them.
And we tell people that not only are these people being fed against their express wishes to not eat, but that the experience is made even worse because they are hauled from their cells by a team of guards (the Forcible Cell Extraction team) and are so nervous and uncomfortable that their throat closes up. The entire procedure — which can last around two hours per prisoner — becomes a horrible battle of wills: throat with a prisoner behind it vs. tube with a nurse behind it.
For weeks, Reprieve’s clients in Guantanamo have been recounting — through letters, during visits and phone calls with their lawyers — the horror they had to endure because the US was determined not to allow them to hunger strike.
“During one force-feeding the nurse pushed the tube about 18 inches into my stomach, hurting me more than usual, because she was doing things so hastily.” Samir Mokbel had described. Abu Wa’el Dhiab had said: “Straps and shackles are put in place and only the chains on the hands are released. Then all the straps are tightened forcefully so that I cannot move or breathe. In addition to this, there are six riot force members: one holding the head and putting his fingers on the throat and neck from below the chin upon the nurse inserts the tube. If you are in pain it is natural for your head to move, so they shouin with severe pressure, the second and third hold the hands, the fourth and fifth hold the legs, and that ‘don’t resist’.”
We shot the video on a drizzly Saturday morning in June. At 7am the whole crew was congregated in a studio in Shoreditch.
Asif Kapadia, the Bafta-award winning director, was behind the camera with actor and long-time Reprieve supporter David Morrissey producing. And, miraculously, we had got Yasiin Bey, the man better known as Mos Def, to be the guinea pig.
Once everything was set up, Yasiin arrived. He had a medical check, we ran through the process, and then cameras started rolling.
I hadn’t thought I’d be disturbed by what was happening — after all, how moved can you be in a sterile East London studio? But as we watched Yasiin emerge into the room in an orange jumpsuit everyone fell silent. He walked slowly towards the force-feeding chair. His shackles made a clanking sound on the cold floor.
Suddenly we were all confronted with the very human reality of the degradation experienced by those in Guantanamo. If a world-famous rapper surrounded by people who all wished him well could be so shrunken and debased by this, what must it do to a despised man locked away for more than a decade? We winced as David and the Guardian’s Ben Ferguson — Yasiin’s ‘handlers’ for the procedure — strapped him into the force-feeding chair. It looked painful, even though they were not being brutal; not brutal like the stories we hear from inside Gitmo. Then the doctors pulled the tubes towards Yasiin and it began.
You’ve seen the video. It was horrific.
Yasiin’s reaction was difficult to watch. But what I found perhaps even more disturbing than this was how distressed the two doctors were after what they had just been asked to do. They were visibly shaken and kept uttering that they didn’t know how doctors could do this to anyone, let alone to people who were choosing not to eat. “That’s not what doctors are meant to do” said one of them, Adeeb Husain.
As Yasiin recovered at one end of the studio, Kat Craig — Reprieve’s legal director — recounted some details about our clients. She welled up as she told him about Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantanamo, cleared for release under both the Bush and Obama administrations and whose four children — the youngest of whom he has never met — survive without him in South London. Perhaps it sounds melodramatic, but everyone in the room was shell-shocked. We all looked at each other in disbelief and disgust as David Morrissey said to the camera: force-feeding is currently happening 90 times a day in Guantanamo.
What we had just seen, awful as it was, only scratches the surface of what is going on at the US prison.
The video received a phenomenal public and political reaction. Just as importantly, it has meant that lawyers for the men held in the hellish Guantanamo limbo can tell their clients that though they may not be able to see a way out, at least now the world is looking in. The men are not alone in their struggle. The vast majority of people do not support the great injustice being perpetrated against them. When Nabil Hadjarab was told about the campaign, he said: “Thank you for your support and to those who are going to hunger strike. I really appreciate it and it is something I can never forget. I wish for justice and freedom every day.”
A famous rapper and the internet spread the word. But the Guantanamo hunger strike story is being written by men imprisoned by the world’s mightiest nation-state — more than half of whom have been cleared for release — who decided to protest their illegal and indefinite detention the only way they could: with a hunger strike. There is still a long way to go. But this video, along with the legal motions filed and the surrounding campaign, has catapulted these men a lot closer to what they dream of: some semblance of freedom.
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 06/08/2013