magine being strapped into a restraint chair twice a day for nearly 2000 days, with a feeding tube forced up your nose and into your stomach, and liquid nutrient pumped through it. According to an Associated Press report, Abdul Rahman Shalabi, Guantánamo’s longest-term hunger striker, is “occasionally eating solid food,” but he remains seriously underweight, and has medical complications as a result of his extraordinary hunger strike, which has lasted for five years and two months.
Shalabi, a Saudi, weighed 124 pounds when he arrived at Guantánamo in January 2002, but has rarely weighed more than 110 pounds since he began his hunger strike in August 2005, as part of the largest hunger strike in the prison’s history. At one point, in November 2005, he weighed just 100 pounds (PDF), and when the authorities took harsh steps to bring the strike under control in January 2006, importing a number of restraint chairs to make sure that it “wasn’t convenient” for the strikers to continue (as Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, the head of the US Southern Command, explained to the New York Times), Shalabi, Tarek Baada, a Yemeni, and another Saudi, Ahmed Zuhair (who was released last June), refused to give up.
In September 2009, after four years of being force-fed daily, Shalabi weighed just 108 pounds, and wrote a distressing letter to his lawyers, in which he stated, “I am a human who is being treated like an animal.” In November 2009, when his letter was included in a court submission, one of his lawyers, Julia Tarver Mason, stated, “He’s two pounds away from organ failure and death.”
Although it was understandable that the US authorities wished to prevent the PR disaster of having a prisoner die by starving himself to death, medical staff who participated in the force-feeding have run up against trenchant criticism from others in the profession, because medical ethics have long prohibited force-feeding mentally competent hunger strikers, recognizing that it is often the only manner in which they can make protests about the conditions of their confinement.
This is troubling enough, but a far more worrying aspect of the story of Guantánamo’s hunger strikers concerns the three men who died in mysterious circumstances in June 2006, and who may, according to reports by four soldiers who were present at the time, have been killed, either accidentally or deliberately, rather than having committed suicide, as claimed in the authorities’ official narrative. All three were long-term hunger strikers, as were the two other prisoners who allegedly committed suicide — Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi, in May 2007, and Muhammad Salih, a Yemeni, in June 2009 — and the disturbing subtext is that their resistance to injustice, through hunger striking, made them powerful enemies somewhere in the base’s command structure, or in the various shadowy agencies responsible for interrogation.
To the extent that he has survived his long ordeal, Abdul Rahman Shalabi is at least fortunate, although it is clear that five years on a hunger strike has taken a heavy toll on his health. This is in spite of the generally upbeat tone of the authorities’ commentary, which was included in a submission as part of the government’s response to a motion submitted by his lawyers, asking for independent medical experts to be allowed to travel to Guantánamo to examine Shalabi’s physical and mental health, and to treat him if necessary.
According to Navy Capt. Monte Bible, who commands the Joint Medical Group at Guantánamo, Shalabi “has begun to eat such things as pasta, bread, cake, seafood, baklava, cookies, peanut butter, cheese and ice cream,” and medical logs submitted by the government noted that he first ate solid food in February, when a guard “reported seeing him eat a granola bar behind a newspaper, trying to shield himself from view,” and he “received seven Slim Jims — a dried meat snack – and a pack of gum from a visiting attorney.” The next month, according to the log, he “received a sticky bun from night guards at the hospital,” where he is still held, and in July he “ate grapes, spaghetti with meat sauce, two pieces of baklava and a banana.”
Despite this, however, the authorities conceded that Shalabi weighed only 101 pounds — just two-thirds of his “ideal body weight” — in September, and also noted that doctors had diagnosed him with gastroparesis, a condition which slows the digestive system. According to Capt. Bible, it “causes constipation, bloating and abdominal pain,” and “was apparently caused by a weakening of his abdominal muscles as a result of the fast,” although he added that it “may go away as Shalabi begins to eat more solid food.”
His lawyers were less upbeat. Although they noted that he has eaten “high-fat foods, such as peanut butter, ice cream and cheese,” they continued to “express concern about the potentially dangerous long-term effects of his hunger strike,” as the Associated Press described it. One of his attorneys, Jana Ramsey stated, “For months, Mr. Shalabi’s weight has hovered around a dangerous line.”
It is unknown when the court will rule, but it is unlikely that the lawyers’ request will be granted, as judges have a long history of refusing to interfere in the day-to-day running of Guantánamo, or in seeking to allow visits by independent medical experts. In addition, as the Associated Press noted, “Lawyers for the government argued that outside experts are unnecessary in part because the prisoner has cooperated with medical personnel at Guantánamo and is showing signs of improvement.”
For a man who still weighs little more than an anorexic model, it is uncertain to what extent the odd peanut butter snack or ice cream can be regarded as “signs of improvement.” However, the authorities will be hoping that Capt. Bible’s intervention, and the scattered references to food in their logs, will be enough to prevent anyone with an objective point of view from being allowed to meet Shalabi in Guantánamo, where secrecy remains part of the very fabric of the prison, 20 months after President Obama came to power promising to close it, and 19 months after he received a specially commissioned report which concluded that the prison “complies with the humanitarian requirements of the Geneva Conventions.”