There will be no more hunger strikes at Guantanamo Bay, according to a new document first reported on Monday night. Not because the detainees of the military prison are giving up on the tactic, though. Instead, the military is transitioning to referring to hunger strikes as “long-term non-religious fasts.”
The shift was first reported on the newly minted VICE News which obtained a copy of the document that contained the change, a standard operating procedure (SOP) manual innocuously titled “Medical Management of Detainees With Weight Loss.” Under the new guidelines, according to VICE, the previous liberal use of the phrase “hunger strike” had vanished. Instead, the base’s Joint Medical Group (JMG) was advised that in instances where “clinically significant weight loss” had occurred to administer force-feeding — with or without the consent of the prisoner:
“In the event a detainee refrains from eating or drinking to the point where it is determined by medical assessment that continued fasting will result in a threat to his life or seriously jeopardize his health, JMG medical personnel will make reasonable efforts to obtain voluntary consent for medical treatment,” the protocol states. “If consent cannot be obtained from the detainee, medical procedures necessary to preserve health and life shall be implemented without his consent…. When involuntary feeding/fluid hydration is medically required, the JMG Senior Medical Officer (SMO) will inform the JMG Commander. When the SMO and JMG Commander reach concurrence, they will inform the [Joint Task Force (JTF)] Commander and request written approval to administer involuntary feeding/fluid hydration.”
Guantanamo’s new guidelines come after the detention facility’s largest hunger strike to date, in which at its peak, more than 100 of the facility’s 155 detainees were fasting. While the new SOP does not specifically link the treatments recommended to protests from inmates, the intention is clear according to Retired Army Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis. “The document tries to give the impression that it’s not about hunger strikes — that it’s about weight loss,” Xenakis told VICE News. “They took the emphasis off of hunger strikes. It’s a disguise.”
According to the VICE report, the new document was first released in December of last year. December was also when the military stopped providing the press with numbers of Guantanamo Bay detainees currently taking part in hunger strikes after almost a year of constant updates. “JTF-Guantánamo allows detainees to peacefully protest but will not further their protests by reporting the numbers to the public,” a spokesman said at the time. “The release of this information serves no operational purpose and detracts from the more important issues, which are the welfare of detainees and the safety and security of our troops.”
At the peak of last year’s strike, 42 of the participants were being force-fed against their will — a process in which a tube is place up a prisoner’s nose and down his esophagus. In a letter that first drew American attention to the issue, one detainee described the procedure as a “cruel punishment” he would not wish upon anyone. “I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way,” Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel said. “As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach.”
The continuation of force-feeding practices goes against medical standards established both in the United States and internationally. The American Medical Association wrote to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last year to condemn the practice, which also goes against the World Medical Association’s guidelines. In 1991, the WMA declared that force-feeding is “never ethically acceptable.” Lawmakers and rights groups alike joined the medical associations in their calling for the practice to end, a call that Guantanamo officials appear to have ignored in their latest guidelines.