New Lancet letter condemns force-feeding at Guantánamo

Amnesty International today (10 March) called for action from the US authorities in response to an open letter from leading medical experts that condemns force-feeding of prisoners at the US detention centre in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The letter, published today in The Lancet medical journal, is signed by more than 250 distinguished medical experts from the UK, the USA, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Australia. Co-authors include Dr Oliver Sacks (author and neurologist), Dr Holly G Atkinson (President of Physicians for Human Rights) and Dr John Kalk (who supported hunger strikers’ human rights in apartheid-era South Africa). A number of the experts are American medics, including from Harvard and Yale.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

“This letter must be acted on. Reports of cruel force-feeding methods at Guantánamo Bay are deeply troubling and only underline the need for independent medical examinations of the prisoners.

“Rather than trying to break the hunger strike by forcibly feeding the detainees, the US should respect their human rights by putting an end to arbitrary detention and ensuring access to justice.

“Meanwhile, the camp, which has already become a byword for abuse and an indictment of the US government’s failure to uphold human rights, should be closed immediately.”

Dr David Nicholl, a consultant neurologist at the City Hospital in Birmingham, coordinated The Lancet letter. He said:

“This letter really shows the strength of feeling amongst the world’s leading medical experts - they are saying with one voice that force-feeding of hunger strikers by medical staff at Guantánamo is unequivocally wrong.”

Another co-signatory to the letter, Dr William Hopkins, a psychiatrist at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, said:

“Doctors force-feeding prisoners at Guantánamo are acting as an arm of the military and have abrogated their medical-ethical duties. The American Medical Association should launch disciplinary proceedings against any of its members known to have participated in violating prisoners’ rights in this way.”

The letter states that international medical-ethics standards forbid force-feeding of hunger strikers who make an informed decision to mount a hunger strike. The letter also attacks the use of “restraint chairs” to immobilise prisoners before forcibly inserting feeding pipes into detainees’ nasal passages. The letter calls on the US government to “ensure that detainees are assessed by independent physicians” and that “force-feeding and restraint chairs are abandoned forthwith in accordance with internationally agreed standards”.

Because of the secretive nature of the military prison, it is not clear how many detainees have been involved in hunger strikes. Reports have previously indicated that over 100 detainees had joined the protest but it is thought that many have since ended their actions because of coercive methods employed by US guards and doctors to “break” the strike. Of the five reportedly continuing their hunger strike, one is Shaker Aamer, a Saudi national who is married to a British woman and is a long-term resident of the UK.

Approximately 500 prisoners of some 35 nationalities are being held at the prison camp and most have not been charged with an offence. Though some prisoners have now been held for over four years, no-one has yet received a proper trial.

Though there are no UK nationals currently held at Guantánamo there are believed to be eight long-term residents of the UK imprisoned, many of these with relatives also in the UK. These include people recognised as refugees by the UK authorities.

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