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Est. April 5, 2002
September 03, 2015 - Issue 619

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Forced Feeding Prisoners
Becoming Routine
Many Consider It Torture


"There are few practical rights that
prisoners have inside any chamber
of imprisonment and the last one is
the right to refuse to take nourishment."

At the end of July, the Israeli parliament approved the forced feeding of prisoners over the objections of the country’s main medical association and the same objections to the procedure have been raised by human rights activists in that country as have been raised about the same treatment of prisoners the U.S. is holding in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Many legal experts and human rights organizations declare that forced feeding is a form of torture, just as many claim that solitary confinement of prisoners for more than a few weeks is a form of torture. In many prisons in the U.S., inmates have been held in solitary confinement for years, even decades.

It all depends on your perspective. Waterboarding is considered torture and at least a few of the Japanese who were on trial after World War II were executed for waterboarding their prisoners of war. Yet, Dick Cheney, former vice president in the George W. Bush Administration, has gone about the country claiming that the practice (which simulates drowning) is merely “enhanced interrogation” and, therefore, is not torture.

About waterboarding, Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota and a former Navy SEAL, underwent a waterboarding session as part of his SEAL training. It’s torture, he declared. Back in 2011, he told Huffington Post that, if he waterboarded the right wing host of Fox News program, Sean Hannity, he could get him to say, “Barack Obama is the greatest president.” On another occasion, Ventura said that, if he had Cheney on a waterboard, he could have him confessing to the Tate murders, the mass murder committed in California in the late 1960s by followers of Charles Manson.

As for forced feeding, there has been a more recent example of a volunteer, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), the rapper, who volunteered to be force-fed to be able to describe what it is like for the so-called detainees at Guantanamo, Muslims who were imprisoned for an indefinite period by the hundreds after the 9/11 attacks. When many went on hunger strikes, they were force-fed. Bey, himself a Muslim and a native New Yorker, volunteered to undergo the procedure and be videotaped. He lasted a very short time, because of the extreme pain, not to mention the humiliation.

The victims of forced feeding are strapped down on a chair, not unlike how condemned prisoners are strapped down for a lethal injection or, in the past, for the electric current. A feeding tube is inserted up through a nostril and down into the stomach. It can be repeated in the other nostril. During Ramadan, the Guantanamo force-feeders honored the rules of the Muslim observance and only force-fed them after sundown.

In 2013, the White House defended the practice and the then-spokesman, Jay Carney, said, “The president said in April, we do not want these individuals to die,” according to the Miami Herald. Carney also said that Obama understood that the forced feeding is a “challenging situation.” Indeed, it was, since so many were being held without charge and did not know if they would ever leave the prison alive.

Israel’s Medical Association, the equivalent of the American Medical Association in the U.S., called on Israeli doctors to refuse to be involved in the procedure, declaring forced feeding to be risky and a form of torture. Both the U.S. and Israel’s national medical associations are members of the World Medical Association, which describes torture “as the deliberate, systematic or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons acting alone or on the orders of any authority, to force another person to yield information, to make a confession, or for any other reason.” The WMA’s policy also states, “According to the policy, a prisoner who refuses to eat should not be fed artificially against his will, provided that he or she is judged to be rational.”

But, who is to judge whether a hunger striker is rational or not? All of these policies have an escape clause for jailers and torturers. They can debate whether a prisoner is rational endlessly, all the while force-feeding against the person’s will. There are few practical rights that prisoners have inside any chamber of imprisonment and the last one is the right to refuse to take nourishment. Forced feeding is a violation of that last right and is the ultimate violation of one’s person, before the inevitable mental and emotional breakdown of the person.

The practice of forced feeding goes back a long way and, in the U.K., back to the early years of the 20th Century, during the time of that country’s women’s suffrage movement. When women who were jailed for voting or trying to vote were imprisoned went on hunger strikes, they were force fed and American modernist-feminist writer Djuna Barnes had herself force fed to write about the experience.

In Israel, the nation’s Physicians for Human Rights told Reuters that the law is shameful and urged doctors to “refuse to serve as a fig leaf for torture.” Participation by doctors would be to “severely violate medical ethics for political gains…” However, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Internal Security Minister, defended the law, Reuters reported, as a way to prevent Palestinians jailed for security offenses from using hunger strikes to pressure Israeli authorities to release them. Then, he noted on Facebook that it would be up to an Israeli civilian court to make the decision to force-feed. Again, the slippery slope that leans toward torture, with the court or “legal experts” giving cover to the military and politicians, as in Guantanamo, as well as Israel.

When nations or groups of nations, such as the United Nations, come up with a convention or agreement on things of such great import as torture, it is wise to remember who is doing the negotiating and drafting of language: They are members of the political and economic elites of all the countries involved and, in an individual nation, it is the same elites who formulate the policies and laws with which they promise to abide.

Therefore, it is not likely that they will provide ironclad language that will prohibit torture in all its forms and so it is with most laws and international agreements of whatever kind. Representatives of nations will not write, or agree to, language that they cannot live with and they always leave themselves a loophole, legal or philosophical (“We didn’t want them to die,” in the case of forced feeding, and the torturer’s twisted take on the “sanctity of life.”). Those in power always wish to remain in power and will take whatever actions are necessary to maintain power, and so they leave themselves an escape clause in domestic laws or international agreements.

On Dec. 10, 1984, the U.N. adopted “The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” which lays out clearly what might constitute torture. The U.S. signed the convention in 1988 and it was ratified in 1994. One short sentence provides an addition that tightens up the loophole that might be seen to exist: “Actions which fall short of torture may still constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under Article 16.”

Even as the Dick Cheneys of the world move about declaring that what they engaged in is not torture might be caught up short by that last sentence, which prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” things that are specifically prohibited in the language of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” If American officials cannot be depended upon to uphold the constitution, it is up to the people to make themselves aware of all of the ways that their rights are violated and fight to retain them.

Torture is perpetrated away from the sight and hearing of the people, otherwise it would not be tolerated. Torturers know this and make certain that the torture chambers are far from the lives of the people…in prisons and jails, but also in other countries, where officials who condone torture can be provided “plausible deniability,” in places like Guantanamo or “black sites,” in several other countries, usually run by dictators or authoritarians who hold the people in little respect, if not outright contempt and, therefore, have little to fear from them.

It is up to the people to hold their elected officials to the laws and the constitution, itself, to prevent any further use of torture. In the U.S., we like to refer to things that happen or do not happen “on my watch.” Torture has happened on the watch of many officials in the U.S. Very few torturers have been brought to justice and, until the highest officials are brought to justice for torture of prisoners, it is not likely that we will see an end to the practice. It takes a vigilant people to achieve such an end and a willingness on their part to see that justice is done. The perpetrators are not going to bring themselves to justice. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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