WASHINGTON - Hunger-striking prisoners who are force-fed at Guantanamo Bay can choose from several flavors, including strawberry, for the liquid meal they must ingest and well-behaved inmates sometimes are force-fed communally, a US court heard Wednesday.
In remarkable testimony outlining procedures at the US Naval base in southeastern Cuba, government officials described how prison guards deal with detainees who refuse to eat.
The case was brought by Abu Wa'el Dhiab of Syria, who has been held without charge or trial since 2002 and was cleared for release in 2009. He is a long-term hunger-striker and is protesting over force-feeding techniques.
A prisoner is subject to force-feeding if he drops to 85 per cent of his ideal weight, due to "long-term non-religious fasting," the term now used by the military to describe hunger-striking, US District Judge Gladys Kessler heard.
Speaking for the government, prosecutor Andrew Warden said a group of six "compliant" prisoners had been allowed to watch TV while they were force-fed and were seated on a normal soft chair, instead of strapped into a restraint chair.
But Dhiab is a violent and uncooperative prisoner, Warden said, so is not entitled to such treatment.
"Mr Dhiab has a long pattern of non-compliance," Warden said, including the "splashing of body fluids and excrements" and "abusive language." It is the first time since terror suspects arrived at Guantanamo nearly 13 years ago that a federal judge has heard such testimony about conditions there.
According to general procedures for non-compliant detainees, guards from "forcible cell extraction" (FCE) teams pull inmates from their cells for feeding.
"The FCE will use the minimum force to help prevent any injury to the detainee during the FCE process," Warden said, adding this was "a last resort after attempts of verbal persuasion." Non-compliant prisoners are then strapped to a restraint chair and are fitted with a "spit shield" to stop them spitting at guards.
"The restraint chair was never intended to punish detainees or retaliate against them," Warden said, reading from a document written by former Guantanamo chief Colonel John Bogdan.
"It was padded and comfortable and felt like a normal chair," Bogdan wrote.
Warden's testimony came after lawyers for Dhiab on Monday said the force-feeding procedure was painful and humiliating and that guards had taken his wheelchair and crutches from him when he was pulled from his cell.
Different flavors of nutrient
Once strapped into the chair, Warden said a hunger-striking detainee is given a choice of nutrient, or liquid meal: butter pecan, chocolate, vanilla or strawberry.
"Detainees are offered pain relievers, like Ibuprofen, if they express their discomfort," he added.
They are also offered candies to suck on to assist with the swallowing of the feeding tube. Olive oil, once used to lubricate the pipe, is now prohibited because it can provoke inflammations and risk causing pneumonia, the court heard.
The feeding process lasts about 20 minutes, after which the feeding tube is pulled out.
Dhiab wants the pipe to be left in, but guards worry a prisoner could fashion the tube into a weapon or use it to choke himself. The government also contends that leaving the tube in would invite infection.
Judge Kessler appeared dubious when the government said that prison guards were using narrow feeding pipes used by children's hospitals.
Physician Steven Miles testified that such tubes were only used for the extraction of poison or drugs, not for feeding.
At the end of the hearing, a closed court was shown three hours of videos of Dhiab's force-feeding. Eric Lewis, one of the lawyers that saw the footage, said it was "hard to watch." The judge has ordered the videos to be made public, but the government may yet appeal.