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NI: Belfast-born medic spearheads new letter to Lancet condemning force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantánamo

Human rights group says US authorities must act on medical experts’ call for independent examination.

Belfast-born consultant Dr David Nicholl is the man behind a remarkable open letter from leading international 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 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.

Amnesty International's Northern Ireland programme director Patrick Corrigan said:

“This letter must be acted on. Reports of cruel force-feeding methods at Guantánamo Bay are very worrying. There is an urgent need for independent medical examinations of the prisoners.

“Rather than trying to break the hunger strike by forcibly feeding the detainees, the US should put an end to arbitrary detention and give them access to due process of law.

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

Dr David Nicholl, the Belfast-born consultant neurologist at the City Hospital in Birmingham who coordinated The Lancet letter, 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.

Amnesty International has campaigned for over four years for Guantánamo prisoners’ human rights. It is calling for an end to all cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment at the camp and for prisoners to be released or charged with a recognisably criminal offence in proceedings that meet international fair trial standards and exclude the death penalty.

The organisation notes that by holding prisoners without charge or trial at Guantánamo the US authorities have effectively created a situation where a hunger strike is one of the few available means for detainees to protest against human rights violations or other injustices. Amnesty International opposes forcible feeding of hunger strikers where it constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

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