US government lawyers advised Guantanamo authorities that force-feeding is ‘never acceptable’ under medical ethical standards, at the same time as dozens of military nurses were being sent to the prison to force-feed detainees, it has been revealed.
An internal memo, obtained by Vice News through FOIA and written on June 21st, 2013 – at the height of the prison’s mass hunger-strike – states that ‘international law and certain medical ethical standards hold that the “forced feeding” of a mentally competent person capable of making an informed decision is never acceptable.’ This previously-secret legal advice proves that the Department of Defense knew it was placing military nurses and doctors at risk of professional sanction by conscripting them into an unethical medical procedure.
The advice appears to have been drafted in the same period that dozens of fresh military medics were rushed to Guantánamo in response to the prison’s escalating hunger strike. At that time, prisoners reported that the new personnel exhibited considerable stress because they were participating, for the first time in their careers, in a forcible medical procedure. Former detainee Ahmed Belbacha recounted to lawyers at Reprieve, for example, that “Some of the newer medical staff they sent down…are afraid during feeding and it shows…when one of the new nurses, she was perhaps 40, started to feed me, I saw that her hands were shaking. I asked whether it was her first time ever to force feed someone. ‘Yes it is,’ she responded.”
It is unclear whether Guantánamo ever permits medical staff who have ethical qualms about force-feeding not to participate. One former head of nursing at the prison, Commander Jane French, had previously indicated that medical personnel who objected to force-feeding would be excused without sanction. Yet the Department of Defense is currently weighing disciplinary proceedings against one military nurse who refused to participate in force-feeding on ethical grounds.
Last year, hunger striker Abu Wa’el Dhiab – who has since been released from Guantanamo – revealed to his lawyers at Reprieve that a nurse, witnessing the suffering force-feeding caused detainees, determined he could no longer force-feed, saying “I have come to the decision that I refuse to participate in this criminal act.” The nurse, who has served 18 years in the military and is two years away from retirement, now faces the risk of being forced out of the armed services and forfeiting his pension and potentially his veterans’ benefits.
Cori Crider, a director at Reprieve and counsel to a number of detainees who are force-fed, said: “It’s disturbing to see that the Defense Department knew full well it was exposing its young nurses and doctors to a risk of professional censure and chose to plough ahead with abusive force-feeding anyway. Now the DOD has elected to stamp on the one nurse we know of who consulted his conscience and came to the right conclusion – that force-feeding, especially in the way it is done at Gitmo today, is just wrong. Our military medics shouldn’t be punished for exercising their professional judgment; that is their role, even when they wear a uniform. The DOD needs to drop its misguided effort to ‘make an example’ of this nurse. And the simplest way to keep these nurses out of harm’s way is for President Obama to end the conundrum and shut the prison.”