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Guantánamo’s Hidden History: Shocking Statistics of Starvation by Andy Worthington

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by Andy Worthington
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
www.andyworthington.co.uk
14 June 2009

A hallucinatory image of force-feeding at Guantanamo by Sami al-Haj, as reproduced by British artist Lewis Peake

“Guantánamo’s Hidden History: Shocking Statistics of Starvation” is a report I’ve compiled for Cageprisoners analyzing the weight records for prisoners at Guantánamo (released by the Pentagon in March 2007), which demonstrate that, from January 2002, when the prison opened, until February 2007, when these particular records came to an end, one in ten of the total population — 80 prisoners in total — weighed, at some point, less than 112 pounds (eight stone, or 50 kg), and 20 of these prisoners weighed less than 98 pounds (seven stone, or 44 kg).

The report is available here (as a PDF):
Guantanamo’s Hidden History: Shocking Statistics Of Starvation

The following is the introduction to the report:

Today is the third anniversary of the deaths in Guantánamo of three prisoners, Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani. The anniversary comes just two weeks after the second anniversary of the death of Abdul Rahman al-Amri, the fourth prisoner to die in mysterious circumstances, and just eight days after the death of a fifth prisoner, Muhammad Salih. The authorities maintain that the men died by committing suicide, although doubts about this explanation have repeatedly been voiced by former prisoners. However, it is also significant that all five men were long-term hunger strikers.

Cageprisoners is marking this sad anniversary with a brief report about the Guantánamo hunger strikers, and the dreadful toll that prolonged starvation — and brutal force-feeding, which is the response of the US military — exacts on prisoners held, for the most part, without charge or trial in a seemingly endless legal limbo. Force-feeding involves prisoners being strapped into a restraint chair and force-fed twice daily against their will, through an agonizing process that involves having a tube inserted into the stomach through the nose.

As Clive Stafford Smith, the lawyer for several dozen Guantánamo prisoners, explained in the Los Angeles Times in 2007, with reference to Sami al-Haj, who was released in May 2008, “Medical ethics tell us that you cannot force-feed a mentally competent hunger striker, as he has the right to complain about his mistreatment, even unto death. But the Pentagon knows that a prisoner starving himself to death would be abysmal PR, so they force-feed Sami. As if that were not enough, when Gen. Bantz J. Craddock headed up the US Southern Command, he announced that soldiers had started making hunger strikes less ‘convenient.’ Rather than leave a feeding tube in place, they insert and remove it twice a day.”

Statistics can be deceiving, of course, but three months ago, when Ramzi Kassem, the lawyer for Ahmed Zuhair, one of Guantánamo’s most persistent hunger strikers, came back from a recent visit to the prison, he estimated that Zuhair weighed no more than 100 pounds, and “also appeared to be ill, vomiting repeatedly during meetings” at the prison. “Mr. Zuhair lifted his orange shirt and showed me his chest,” Kassem explained. “It was skeletal.“ He added, “Mr. Zuhair’s legs looked like bones with skin wrapped tight around them.”

While this is disturbingly thin, given that an average, healthy man weights between 150 and 200 pounds, Cageprisoners’ latest report only confirms that it is typical of the skeletal state of Guantánamo’s long-term hunger strikers.

In March 2007, the Pentagon released a series of documents, “Measurements of Heights and Weights of Individuals Detained by the Department of Defense at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,” which recorded, in numbing detail, the prisoners’ weights, from the date of their arrival and, in general, at monthly intervals thereafter until December 2006, when these particular records come to an end. In the cases of prisoners on hunger strike, the weights were recorded at weekly intervals, and, in some cases, on a daily basis.

Unnoticed at the time of their release, these documents have not, until now, been analyzed in depth, but after conducting a comprehensive review of the documents I can reveal that the results demonstrate the extent to which the Pentagon’s prohibition on releasing any photos of the prisoners has enabled it to disguise a truly shocking fact: throughout Guantánamo’s history, one in ten of the total population — 80 prisoners in total — weighed, at some point, less than 112 pounds (eight stone, or 50 kg), and 20 of these prisoners weighed less than 98 pounds (seven stone, or 44 kg).

If photos of these prisoners had been made available, it is, I believe, no understatement to say that calls for Guantánamo’s closure would have been much more strident than they have been, and as dozens of prisoners are still on hunger strike, the fear is that, unless President Obama steps up his efforts to close Guantánamo before his January 2010 deadline, more will follow.

Andy Worthington
For Cageprisoners
10 June 2009

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.

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  1. [...] Guantánamo’s Hidden History: Shocking Statistics of Starvation by Andy Worthington [...]

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