No Comment — June 15, 2009, 4:04 pm

The Ghosts of Gitmo

One hundred and forty days into his administration, Barack Obama remains haunted by the ghost of Gitmo. Not only is the camp still open and operating, but Obama’s claims to have ended the abuses for which the facility has gained notoriety around the world are increasingly disbelieved. And indeed, there is good reason not to believe them.

Consider the case of Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh Al Hanashi, who was pronounced dead on June 1—the fifth Guantanamo prisoner to die in captivity. The prisoner’s death was described as an “apparent suicide” by the camp commander. But U.S. authorities have maintained mysterious silence about the death, and those who have looked into it come away filled with skepticism and more questions. Here’s how the Associated Press characterized it:

A Guantanamo Bay detainee who left his cell to meet with military commanders as prisoner representative never returned, and was instead sent to a psychiatric ward where he died five months later, a former detainee recalled… The U.S. military has refused to say how Saleh allegedly killed himself in the closely watched ward. But the former detainee, Binyam Mohamed, said it wasn’t like him to commit suicide. “He was patient and encouraged others to be the same,” Mohamed said. “He never viewed suicide as a means to end his despair.” Even if it was suicide, Mohamed still classifies the death as “murder, or unlawful killing, whichever way you look at it,” saying that the U.S. had caused Saleh to lose hope by locking him up indefinitely without charges.

But there’s another detail to Saleh’s death that U.S. officials are particularly anxious to avoid discussing: it appears to be tied to practices that the Pentagon defends as “force-feeding” but other officials decry as “torture,” and that, no matter how you cut it, do not comport with accepted medical standards. Saleh is apparently one of seven inmates held in the psychiatric ward for the purpose of being exposed to what the Pentagon calls “force-feeding.”

In the current issue of Harper’s–which should be arriving in your mailbox soon—Luke Mitchell takes a close look at the issues surrounding the “force-feeding” program. Pentagon officials seem extremely eager not to be associated with it or to be quoted defending it, particularly if they are health care professionals. There’s a good reason for that. The techniques do not comply with the international standards for actual force-feeding, established in the World Medical Association’s Malta Declaration of 1991. Instead they have a darker and more distressing progeny. From the use of restraint chairs down to the specific brand of commercial diet supplement used by the doctors, the force-feeding techniques now in use at Guantanamo replicate the methods used by the CIA at black sites under Bush. At the black sites, those methods were not part of any medical regime. Instead, they were a part of a carefully designed torture regime, the very same regime that Obama claims to have abolished in his first executive order.

Pentagon spokespersons righteously defend the “force-feeding” program at Guantanamo as medically necessary to save lives. That’s a farce. In fact, this program is the last residue of the Bush-era torture system. Did it just claim another life on June 1? That’s a question that some apparently don’t want to have to answer. And two weeks later, the public continues to await a serious explanation of this death. The passage of time will not make the ultimate explanations more credible.

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