The Ticket

Doctors to Obama: Let us treat Guantanamo detainees on hunger strike

Liz Goodwin
The Ticket

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U.S. military guards watch detainees in a cell block at Camp 6 in the Guantanamo Bay detention center in 2010. …

More than 150 doctors and other medical professionals are asking President Barack Obama to allow them to treat hunger strikers in the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"It is clear that they do not trust their military doctors," the physicians wrote in an open letter published in The Lancet medical journal on Tuesday. "Without trust, safe and acceptable medical care of mentally competent patients is impossible. Since the detainees do not trust their military doctors, they are unlikely to comply with current medical advice."

More than 100 of the 166 prisoners still in Guantanamo are on a hunger strike; some of them have been striking for as long as five months. Nearly half of the hunger strikers are being "enterally fed," according to the military, which means military doctors snake tubing connected to a can of Ensure up their nostrils and down the backs of their throats. Many of the detainees consider this to be torture.

The World Medical Association and the United Nations say that mentally competent prisoners who refuse to eat should not be force-fed, but the U.S. civilian prison and military prison policy is that prisoners should not be allowed to starve themselves.

Thirteen of the hunger strikers sent a letter last month to their military doctors asking for independent medical attention.

"I do not wish to die, but I am prepared to run the risk that I may end up doing so, because I am protesting the fact that I have been locked up for more than a decade, without a trial, subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and denied access to justice," read the letter, which was published in the Guardian. "I have no other way to get my message across."

The detainees said the doctors' "dual loyalties" to both follow military orders and treat their patients meant they could not trust them. A Pentagon spokesman told the Guardian there was "no precedent" for outside doctors to treat detainees.

The hunger strike has become a political issue for Obama, who mentioned it in a May 23 speech on national security. “Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike," he said. "Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that." During the 2008 campaign, Obama vowed to close the camp if elected president.

The Miami Herald reported that 46 of the 166 captives in Guantanamo have been classified as "indefinite detainees" by the Obama administration, which means the government considers them too dangerous to release or transfer but cannot try them in a court of law due to lack of evidence or other reasons. Eighty-six of the detainees have been cleared for release, but their transfer has been delayed.

Medact, a U.K.-based nonprofit that advocates for access to health care, organized the Lancet letter. About 50 of the medical professionals who signed it are from the U.S., the rest are from abroad. Scott Allen, a physician and medical adviser for the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights, is among the U.S. signatories.

Frank Arnold, a British doctor and advocate for immigration detainees, said he signed the letter after reading about the force-feeding of one prisoner who went on a hunger strike at Guantanamo.

"This horrified me," Arnold said. "They do not trust their military doctors because those doctors are following orders which result in what the detainees consider to be torture."

Arnold, for one, said the prisoners should be allowed to starve.

"As long as someone is refusing treatment and is mentally competent to give that refusal ... where I come from that must be obeyed," he said.

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