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Force feeding condemned

24th March 2006

24032006_prison_wire.jpgIn a letter published in the Lancet more than 260 doctors from seven countries called on the US to abandon force-feeding of Guantanamo Bay hunger strikers.

The doctors signed a joint letter, pointing out that international agreements prevent doctors from force-feeding hunger strikers if the individuals have made an informed choice about their protest. They added that Restraint chairs to hold inmates while feeding tubes are inserted - which are reportedly used at the US military base in Cuba - are also banned.

Doctors at Guantanamo Bay who are carrying out the actions should be disciplined by their professional bodies, the letter concluded.

A total of 263 doctors from the UK, Ireland, US, Germany, Australia, Italy and the Netherlands signed the letter, which was co-ordinated by Dr David Nicholl of City Hospital, Birmingham.

Other prominent signatories include Lord Walton of Detchant, a former president of the BMA, and John Kalk, who initiated what is known as 'Kalk's refusal' when he refused to force feed detainees of the apartheid regimen South Africa.

The letter's signatories felt there was not enough publicity about the matter in the US media, said Dr Nicholl and that Americans needed to be challenged. He told the BBC's World Today programme that US doctors going to Guantanamo Bay were being screened to ensure they agreed with the policy of force-feeding.

A co-signatory to the letter, the psychiatrist Dr William Hopkins of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, said that The American Medical Association should launch disciplinary proceedings against any of its members known to have participated in violating prisoners' rights. The World Medical Association (WMA) specifically prohibits force-feeding in the Declarations of Tokyo and Malta, to which the American Medical Association is a signatory.

The two declarations are contradictory and need to be strengthened said Michael Wilks, Chairman of the Medical Ethics Committee in an editorial in the BMJ. The BMA have submitted a revised draft of the Malta declaration for the WMA meeting in May 2006, to try and make it a relevant and effective document.

Michael Wilks also calls upon doctors and international medical bodies to understand and exercise their power and to exert their ethical duty.

Amnesty International’s UK director Kate Allen said that the letter must be acted on. She went on to say that reports of cruel force-feeding methods at Guantanamo Bay were deeply troubling and underlined the need for independent medical examinations of the prisoners.

The President of Physicians for Human Rights (USA) Holly Atkinson agreed that an independent investigation, transparency, and an acceptance that they will abide by the established rules of medical ethics was necessary, said the BMJ.

Mundah Habib, a former inmate, told the BBC he stopped eating because drugs were put in his food, and that hunger strikes were the only way to let the outside world know what was going on. Detainees at the camp have said hunger-strikers were strapped into chairs and force-fed through tubes inserted in their noses.

Since the prison camp opened in January 2002, scores of prisoners accused of links to the Taliban or the al-Qaeda terror network have waged hunger strikes to protest at their indefinite detention. Many of the 490 men have been held for four years without charge.

Timeline for Guantanamo Bay hunger strikes;

July 2005: 52 detainees begin hunger strike, second of the year, in protest at detention and treatment
14 Sept: Lawyers say more than 200 are refusing food. The US military says 128
21 Sept: US says number falls to 45. No explanation given but some tube-feeding admitted
7 Oct: US says number down to 28, 20 of whom are force-fed
27 Oct: US judge "deeply troubled" by force-feeding
25 Dec: Hunger strikers leap to 84, the US says
9 Feb, 2006: US says number down from 84 to four but gives no reason

Two US presidential decrees have set the context for Guantanamo Bay, says the BMJ; the first was the removal of the protection of the Geneva Convention from 'combatants' suspected to be members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Upwardly regrading torture was the second, defining it as such only when the physical pain inflicted was 'of an intensity that accompanies serious physical injury such as death of organ failure'.

Dr Nicholl commented that this was "not a definition anyone on the planet is using" said the BBC.

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Article Information

Title: Force feeding condemned
Author: Sue Knights
Article Id: 164
Date Added: 24th Mar 2006


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