This has been a disturbing week for British resident and Guantánamo prisoner Binyam Mohamed, who endured two and a half years of torture at the hands of Pakistani agents, the CIA, and the United States’ proxy torturers in Morocco, before being transferred to Guantánamo in September 2004.
Last Friday, it was revealed that he was to face a trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo — the “terror courts” invented by Dick Cheney and his advisers in November 2001, which are empowered to conceal classified information from the defendants and, at the judge’s discretion, to accept “evidence” obtained through coercion. This is, of course, particularly worrying in Binyam’s case, as every shred of the so-called evidence against him appears to have been extracted through torture, and would be inadmissible in a courtroom on the US mainland.
There was some brighter news for Binyam on Tuesday, when a judge, Mr. Justice Saunders, responded positively to his lawyers’ request for a judicial review, which, they hope, will require the British government to drop its claim that it is “under no obligation under international law to assist foreign courts and tribunals in assuring that torture evidence is not admitted” and that “it is HM Government’s position that … evidence held by the UK Government that US and Moroccan authorities engaged in torture or rendition cannot be obtained” by Binyam’s lawyers. His lawyers also hope that a favourable decision in the judicial review will compel the government to reveal whatever information it has regarding British knowledge of Binyam’s rendition to torture in Morocco, and information regarding his life in London, which, Binyam says, was presented to him by his Moroccan torturers.
Today, however, the Independent reports that Binyam is so distressed by the announcement of the charges against him that he has embarked on a hunger strike. In a letter to foreign secretary David Miliband, his lawyers at Reprieve, the legal action charity that provides legal assistance to over 30 Guantánamo prisoners, explain that Binyam “began not eating food on May 2, 2008, when he was 146 lbs (10 stone 6 lbs),” but that this went unnoticed, because “the US military does not count it as a ‘hunger strike’ if the prisoner does not actually refuse the tray.” On May 18, therefore, when his weight had already dropped to 128 lbs (9 stone 2 lbs), Binyam began refusing the trays.
Binyam stopped his strike temporarily, when Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s director, and Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley, his military lawyer, persuaded him to eat during the three days of their visit, but announced that he would resume on May 24. Stafford Smith explained, “Under the illegal procedures used by the US military in Guantánamo … they will consider him a ‘hunger striker’ and start force-feeding him when he reaches about 120 lbs (8 stone 8 lbs).” Stafford Smith thought that this might be on June 4 or 5.
From almost the moment that Guantánamo opened, in January 2002, hunger strikes have been used by the prisoners as the only way to protest the lawless conditions of their confinement — held without charge, with no family contact, with little or no social interaction, and with no inkling of when, if ever, their imprisonment will come to an end.
Persistent hunger strikers, however, are made to suffer even more, and are punished by being force-fed, a procedure that is monstrously cruel. Prisoners are strapped into a restraint chair using 16 separate straps — three across the head alone — and fed, twice a day, through a tube that is inserted into the stomach through the nose.
As well as being shockingly painful — and frequently unhygienic, as the tubes are not always cleaned after each use — force-feeding is also illegal, as the World Medical Association made clear in its Declaration of Tokyo in 1975: “Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially.”
The US administration ignores this requirement, as it is unwilling to let prisoners secure what it would regard as a PR victory if they starved themselves to death. Perhaps as a result, four long-term hunger strikers —three in June 2006, and another last May — took the only other action that was available to them, and committed suicide.
Binyam has not yet reached this state of desperation — although in a letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on May 22, he wrote, “I have been next to committing suicide this past while. That would be one way to end it, I suppose.” Nevertheless, as Clive Stafford Smith points out, “The need for humanitarian intervention on behalf of Mr. Mohamed grows ever more urgent. Because no US court will hear his case, I am powerless to secure him the humane treatment that he needs. The British government is not powerless. It is crucial that this be top of the government’s agenda.”
ANDY WORTHINGTON is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (published by Pluto Press). Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org