Voices: I was a lawyer for Guantanamo detainees. Here’s why the allegations against Ron DeSantis matter
I wonder what is the longest time the reader has gone without any solid food at all? Until recently, for me it would have been a few hours. Then I did a couple of sympathy hunger strikes in solidarity with my Guantánamo clients. Each time I went for a week. I finished the second with a single beer, after playing a fairly woozy game of cricket for my village team; after nothing but water for a week, I was a very cheap drunk.
It didn’t take long to figure out that there was no point my clients abusing themselves in a peaceful protest if nobody knew about it – a tree might fall in the forest, but who would know? Now, after 15 years of bringing my clients’ suffering to light, I thought I had seen it all. But it transpires that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis may have witnessed torturing of the detainees who refused food.
DeSantis has presidential ambitions, but do we really want as the leader of the free world?
There can be little doubt who should be recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records for hunger striking: my client Ahmed Rabbani stopped eating in February 2013, and continued his protest for seven years. Until that time, he had been relatively compliant, taking part in the limited strikes that took place in 2005 and 2006, but he finally decided he could endure his detention without trial no longer. In 2002, he had been mistaken for a terrorist called Hassan Ghul, and he started with 540 days of torture in the ‘Dark Prison’ in Kabul before being rendered half way around the world to Cuba.
I documented 61 different methods of abuse that had been inflicted on Ahmed before he began hunger striking, and it was surprising he was still sane. When he began his strike in earnest, Ahmed would have died if he had not been force fed. This may be a difficult moral issue: I did not want him to die. However, the Istanbul Protocol makes it clear that it is unethical to force-feed a competent individual who has decided on a peaceful protest, even unto death. Health professionals should give “precedence to a competent adult patient’s wishes rather than to the views of any person in authority about what would be best for that individual.”
In the notorious case of Bobby Sands, the Protocol was respected by the British. To some he was an IRA terrorist; to others, a hero. During his hunger strike he was elected to Parliament. After 66 days without food, aged 27, he died on 5 May 1981 in the Maze prison hospital. He indisputably achieved some of his political goals in death.
In Guantanamo Bay, the US military decided not to respect the Protocol. That is hardly surprising. They did not respect any other provisions of the law, including the UN Convention Against Torture, so why begin with what is essentially an ethical proscription?
I could have had some sympathy with the military authorities had they behaved in a way that could arguably have been deemed benevolent. Unfortunately, they did not.
When the hunger strikes began in 2005, the response was reasonable enough: they admitted the breadth of the strike, even as the number of detainees protesting their mistreatment crept towards 80 percent of the entire population. When they did start force-feeding, they did it as humanely as possible: they used narrow tubes, inserted with numbing medication and left in the nose for days while the force-feeding continued. They forced the liquid nutrient Ensure into the tubes slowly, to minimize the pain. I witnessed this, and met with several of my clients with tubes sticking out of their noses.
However, in February 2006, General Bantz J. Craddock decided the time had come to break the strikers, just as the military had used other abusive methods to “break” those who had resisted efforts to make them confess – generally falsely – to terrorist activities. He decided, in the word he used in the media, to make it “inconvenient” to protest. He ordered the use of larger tubes that were painful to insert. He ordered the 110 centimetre tubes pulled out twice a day, after each feeding, and reinserted. He ordered the medical professionals to force the Ensure in faster. He made much use of the so-called “Torture Chair” where the prisoners were restrained, so that if they vomited, the whole process could begin again.
"Pretty soon it wasn’t convenient, and they decided it wasn’t worth it," he boasted to The New York Times.
If there was any doubt as to General Craddock’s barbarism, it was perhaps dispelled when we used his methodology to force-feed a brave and generous Yasiin Bey (the rap star formerly known as Mos’ Def). He did not even get to the actual feeding stage before he broke down weeping, begging us to stop.
It was therefore no surprise when the United Nations Special Rapporteur determined in October 2013 that the method of force-feeding in use at Guantanamo under General Craddock constituted “torture”. Ahmed Rabbani was part of the 2005-06 hunger strike, but by the time the UN underlined the obvious he had been on his mega-protest for eight months. The force-feeding had become the 62nd torture method to be applied against him – day in, day out, for seven years.
Ahmed was released to Pakistan three weeks ago. He is in rotten physical shape, but I hope we can help him get better. The only ‘compensation’ he received – or will ever receive – from the US for his abuse was a box containing 48 plastic bottles of Ensure.
Meanwhile, let me go on record: when the polling date rolls around I shall not be voting for Ron DeSantis. I’d rather not help put him into the White House.
Clive Stafford Smith, director of the non-profit 3DCentre (3dc.org.uk) brought the first case against Guantanamo Bay, and continues to represent detainees there.