Why Are The US Government’s Guantanamo Lawyers So Angry?

Last week, a courthouse in Washington DC was hearing the case of Dhiab v. Obama — the first-ever trial to assess the legality of force-feeding methods at Guantanamo Bay. For those present, there seemed to be a lot of anger in the air. But it did not come, as some would expect, from the human rights activists with their placards on the courthouse steps. Nor from the lawyers at international human rights NGO Reprieve, who represent the man everyone is here to discuss, Syrian detainee Abu Wa’el Dhiab. Even Mr Dhiab himself isn’t so much angry, his Reprieve lawyers report — he’s mostly in deep despair. Held at the notorious prison for the last 12 years without charge or trial, he has been on hunger strike for much of the past seven years and cleared for release since 2009. As his lawyer Eric Lewis said in opening statements on Monday, “he does not want to die. He wants to be treated as a human being”.

Instead, the people who seem angry are the government lawyers, who have done everything they can to try to ensure that the American public does not get to hear about what is going on in America’s prison on a tiny patch of land at the eastern end of Cuba – a prison with the apparently un-ironic slogan: “safe, humane, legal, transparent.” In May the government was forced to admit that it had been videotaping the “forcible cell extractions” and force feedings of Mr Dhiab. However, in a totally un-transparent move, it claimed that disclosing the tapes would be harmful to national security. The government has fought tooth and nail to stop those tapes seeing the light of day. But they protest too much. Last Friday their attempts failed when Judge Kessler refused their latest attempt to shield the abuse at Guantanamo from public scrutiny – a request to hold the entire hearing in secret.

Over the past few days, three medical experts have described how Mr Dhiab is subjected to a regime of force feeding administered by clinical staff that is not designed to save his life, nor improve his health, but is purely punitive. Medical ethicist Dr Stephen Miles testified in open court that the entire range of how hunger-strikers are treated — the way a tube is forced up their nose, down their oesophagus and into the stomach twice-daily, the restraint chair, the forcible cell extractions, taking wheelchairs away — constitute a ‘punitive strategy to deter hunger striking’.

You may think that there is nothing wrong with punishing men like Abu Wa’el Dhiab. Isn’t he, after all, the “worst of the worst”? Well, actually, the US government says that he is not. He, like more than half of the men who have been held at Guantanamo for more than a decade without charge, has been found by six government agencies, including the Pentagon, the FBI and the CIA, not to pose a risk to the US or its allies. He, like those 79 others, has been cleared for release, and could leave the prison as soon as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel signs his transfer order.

In the meantime though, while a simple lack of political will on the part of the Obama Administration keeps him in the prison, the behaviour of Joint Taskforce Guantanamo ranges from the petty to the cruel and abusive. They remove his “comfort items” including boxer shorts and socks. They send in riot squads in protective gear to beat him up and drag him to a chair where he is restrained around his head, neck, wrists and ankles and a nasogastric tube is inserted and removed – sometimes several times a day, a practice described by Dr Miles as totally contrary to standard medical practice. “I have never seen — ever- in a medical environment, multiple tube mentions in a day,” he told the court this week.

To what end? The government contends that force feeding and forcible cell extractions of a cleared, disabled man, serve a legitimate penological purpose. They say that the barrage of security measures are necessary to protect their riot-gear clad soldiers from a man who though more than 6ft tall weighs just 152lb. An old back injury, combined, according to another medical expert Dr Sondra Crosby, with years of medical neglect mean that he needs a wheelchair to get around.

Might it be instead that these supposed security measures are implemented more to justify the ongoing operation of Guantanamo, which has had around $2.8 billion dollars spent on it in the last five years — five years since President Obama issued his Executive Order to close the prison. If I were a government lawyer I would feel pretty angry too. Angry that my time and the skills of serving US officers and soldiers were being degraded and wasted in abusing a man — or defending the abuse of a man — who my government believes poses no threat and should be set free.

There is an alternative. Psychiatrist Dr Stephen Xenakis hinted at it in his testimony on Monday. Dr Xenakis spent 28 years serving on active duty in the US Army and retired as a Brigadier General. He examined Mr Dhiab over three days in July. At Monday’s hearing he made the audacious suggestion that abuse breeds mistrust. His observations were met with belligerent pettiness by the government’s cross-examiner. Dr Xenakis continued and described a pointlessly intransigent system where doctors refuse the simplest requests for pain medication or to be fed in his wheelchair, for non-medical reasons. It is a system, where Mr Dhiab is only ever called by a number, 722. Dr Xenakis, no stranger himself to the strictures of the military, observed how depersonalizing this is. If, instead, as Dr Xenakis suggested, trust were built with Mr Dhiab then all the ‘security’ complaints the government cites as the basis for restraining him in a five point chair, would fall away. Then perhaps Joint Task Force Guantanamo could get on with the task of preparing Mr Dhiab for release. There would be a point to that.

Instead, it seems then that the punishment these doctors describe is not about the risk Mr Dhiab poses at all, but the result of an unbending system that, rather than admit its own mistakes, expends vast resources covering them. Look at it this way, and the anger of the Obama Administration’s lawyers at working day-in, day-out on such futile exercises becomes, perhaps, understandable. But there can be no justification for their shameless attempts to stop the US public finding out what is being done in their name at Guantanamo.

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