From inside Guantanamo – 5 things I learned from talking to my client this week

by Clive Stafford Smith

On Wednesday this week, I had a legal call with my client Ahmed Rabbani in Guantanamo Bay. He told me about his deteriorating health, the conditions in the prison and how the authorities are cracking down.

It’s important to remember that this hunger strike is not about food – it’s about injustice and the complete desperation of men who have been abused in US detention for 15 years. What you will see from what he told me, other than the mental and physical distress he is in, is the total control the authorities have over the prisoners – from the denial of even vitamins to hunger strikers, to the coercive tactics of the medical team, to the censor who stopped him as he started to tell me that the hunger strike is spreading.

Here’s what I learned from this call:

1. Ahmed does not want to die

I began the call by reiterating that we were trying to do things that would give him space to suspend his hunger strike, so that a judge would be able to rule on our court action, and to try to minimize the damage to him in the meantime. I explained that hundreds of people were doing a voluntary hunger strike for him.

He was grateful to those who were acting that way, and said he was taking steps to try to avoid the worst that he might suffer – he said he would be taking 200 or 300 calories a day in fruit, and some water, although it is painful for him to drink and he has cut way back on his water intake.

2. Ahmed’s mental health is at crisis point

He was often incoherent during our conversation, and it is clear that he is suffering greatly. Years of detention without trial, abuse and hunger striking have taken their toll. He is hallucinating and has an inability to form new memories or keep recent thoughts. He is not making rational and voluntary choices, and the coercive elements of US government’s actions deprive his decisions of any notion of voluntariness.

He told me:

“My mind is going too. I forget things all the time. I think that there is a person standing in front of me, and then I forget that there is a person in front of me. Then he shakes me and I find out there really is a person there.”

“Imagine yourself seeing your upper body separated from the lower part of the body. I am under a lot of pressure and so I can imagine things that others cannot see. I feel numb in my body. My brain is parched like a desert now.”

3. His physical health is also at crisis point. His body is shutting down

He told me he thinks his real weight is 92lbs(6.5 stone), but that the practice of weighing hunger strikers with their shackles on is continuing, so that they can officially record a higher weight. He also told me that the vitamins he had previously been receiving had stopped – for someone in his condition, this could make the difference between brain damage and no brain damage. Providing vitamins is an essential part of how doctors usually treat starving people in order to prevent damage (for more see https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/208176).

He told me:

“My hearing, my vision is very weak now. I am feeling the burden of striking. I am feeling very unwell. I can’t read more than 15 minutes at a time. I like to read, but I can’t do it. I used to do it for 10 hours, but I cannot do it now. Focusing on the letters on the page is very difficult. Sometimes I read the same page two or three times and I cannot understand what is in it.  I have stopped writing letters, as I cannot do it.”

“I feel unable to move and numb. I just lie down as much as I can. Yes, many times I fall, or am about to fall. When I am walking I am about to fall and I lean against the wall or whatever. I sit down. I have seen death before. It will not stop me, though I do not want to die”

4. The prisoners cannot trust the Guantanamo medical staff

Ahmed told me:

“If you get sufficiently ill, perhaps your kidney fails, perhaps you go blind, then they will force feed you to avoid the bad publicity of someone dying in their custody.”

“Yesterday the female doctor came to say goodbye as she is leaving. Even though she is not a bad person, it is difficult to understand her, as she was supposed to object to the decisions of the administration. When the clinic people come and ask me how I am doing, after all the torture I have been through, the CIA and the hunger strike, this is a real irony. They have been destroying my health, and they ask me how I am doing. She is also a part of this. I told her that she should reject or resign, knowing that they are mistreating us medically, as this is a way of torture. The medical attention is very bad. It has always been bad, but now it is very, very bad. The other day someone was punished because they wanted him to be weighed at the clinic. He asked to bring a scale to the cell as before, as he is very weak, but they said not he had to go to the clinic to be weighed. They are talking about someone who is around 70 years old and they sent the ERF team and pulled him out of his cell.”

He was talking about Saifullah Paracha, the oldest prisoner in Guantanamo.

5. Ahmed is very grateful for your support

He repeated this more than once during our conversation. He knew that the support of thousands of people around the world makes their plight visible. He simply wanted to thank everyone for their efforts.