01 Dec CEO Jonathan Cartu Jon Cartu Reports – ‘Degrading’: Aging detainees describe health care woes at Guantan…
At 72, Saifullah Paracha is Guantanamo Bay’s oldest detainee by some stretch. A number of health problems could be expected to befall any man his age, let alone one who has spent the last 17 years in the notorious offshore U.S. military prison.
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He suffers from “debilitating chest pains,” an “overactive bladder and enlarge[d] prostate,” diabetes, coronary artery disease, diverticulosis, gout, psoriasis and arthritis, his lawyer, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, told ABC News. He has also suffered two heart attacks, one of which occurred when he was held in Bagram, in Afghanistan, before his transfer to Guantanamo, according to his attorney.
Despite this, Paracha, who is alleged by the U.S. government to have been a “significant member of the international al-Qaida support network through his business associations in Pakistan,” was one of 24 low-value detainees who participated in a boycott of medical services this summer to protest what they say is inadequate and culturally insensitive treatment at the facility. They are referred as “low-value” by attorneys and journalists familiar with Guantanamo because they live in more communal cell blocks, where they are able to take part in group activities.
Paracha’s attorney said she was fearful for his life, given his complex medical needs.
None of the 24 low-value detainees, including Paracha, have been charged with a crime. Instead, they are being held indefinitely under the laws of war, which apply while conflict with the Taliban and al Qaeda are ongoing.
In total, there are 40 detainees left at Guantanamo (down from nearly 700 at the peak), ranging in age from their early 40s to early 70s, only nine of whom have been charged with a crime. The subject of detainee care has been an issue of increasing debate in recent years, with the facility now reportedly considering end of life care services for the remaining detainees, according to the New York Times.
Historically at Guantanamo, detainees had been restrained during medical check-ups with a single ankle restraint to the ground, according to detainees’ statements provided to Sullivan-Bennis and shared with ABC News.
But prisoner advocates say a new policy, which allegedly began in late 2017, involved detainees being brought to medical examinations being placed in handcuffs which are attached to a leather brace fitted around their stomach, prohibiting their ability, in one detainee’s words, to even “lift their arms to hold onto a medical record.”
That policy was partially overturned after the boycott, with the leather brace now removed for these medical visits. Detainees remain handcuffed during the medical visits, according to Sullivan-Bennis, who also represents several other inmates at the facility.
‘Last thing a person expects’
One of the detainees, Khaled Qassim, described what he said was the new shackling policy in a June 2019 letter to the human rights charity Reprieve, whose lawyers represent him.
“In the worst days in GITMO, when the number of detainees was in hundreds, doctors used to have the authority to ask the guard force to take some of the restraints off the patient detainee while treating him in the medical space,” Qassim wrote. “Recently, after seventeen years with the number of detainees is far less than before, just in tens, and easier to control, the restraining rules have changed unnecessarily to something much worse.”
He claimed that under the new rules, detainees undergoing medical exams were put in “hand shackles, belly chain and the leg shackles are all on,” and described it as “a scene that would always remind you about the tragedy of the slavery time.”
“This time, unfortunately, it happens before a doctor,” he wrote in the letter, which was reviewed by ABC News. “The last thing a person expects…. Unlike any other meetings.”
Another detainee, Abdul Latif Nasser, who remains detained more than three years after being cleared for release and who was profiled by ABC News in June, appeared to corroborate these claims in a recent meeting according to Sullivan-Bennis, who serves as his attorney as well.
Sullivan-Bennis says Nasser claimed that at routine monthly medical appointments, he had to wear ankle restraints, a stomach brace with handcuffs attached to a leather brace around his waist, with extremely tight restraints. All this took place, he alleged in declassified notes from the meeting with Sullivan-Bennis, in the presence of two guards at all times so, in his words, “nothing is private,” and due to the lack of confidentiality, detainees “cannot discuss private topics.”
Nasser also claimed that detainees don’t know who their doctors will be because of rotating staff and feel uncomfortable discussing personal medical matters and undergoing certain procedures, such as prostate exams, with female doctors, for religious reasons.
According to Sullivan-Bennis, when she asked Nasser how inmates would respond to a colonoscopy being performed on them by a female doctor, Nasser said: “some detainees would prefer to die.”
“Access to a private doctor is more important to my religion than allowing me to pray,” she says he told her.
Shackling, boycotts and veering policy
Over the summer, frustration with circumstances surrounding medical care came to a breaking point. When Sullivan-Bennis received Qassim’s letter in June, she says she thought to herself “Oh my god, that’s new.”
When she returned to Guantanamo to visit Qassim and her other clients, she says she found they had been denying themselves access to medical care. Although they did not expressly use the term “boycott,” she found that all 24 low-value detainees were not attending their medical appointments.
“I’m extremely concerned for [Paracha] separately from the outrage and it was then that I learned that no-one was going to the doctor,” she told ABC News. Her immediate fear was that medical harm would befall Guantanamo’s oldest detainee.
“You’ve got 24 people going to the same doctor and all refusing to go and my fear was that it wouldn’t move the administration to engage in a conversation,” she said. “And that the result that would come would be the death of one of my clients. I mean it sounds extreme but it’s actually not very extreme.”
So Sullivan-Bennis says it was a surprise when she learned that the boycott had been successful.
After a month, she says a doctor entered the detainees’ living quarters to find out why they weren’t attending their appointments.
The detainees told the doctor that they were upset with the treatment they had been receiving, and “shortly thereafter things changed,” according to Sullivan-Bennis.
While the leather brace fitted around the stomach is no longer required, detainees still have to wear handcuffs during medical visits, the attorney said.
She also said that there used to be two doctors for low-value detainees.
“That has now dropped to one provider, whom none of the detainees trust to give advice or care,” she said.
Department of Defense instructions say that the treatment of detainees held under the law of war should “be guided by professional judgments and standards similar to those applied to personnel of the U.S. Armed Forces.” Furthermore, the latest official guidance from the DOD on shackling reads that such restraints, if used, will be applied in a safe and professional manner.”
The DOD, in response to the allegations that detainees were being shackled, told ABC News it continues “to explore ways to provide adequate care for an aging population, with varying levels of mobility, by making appropriate modifications to existing facilities.
“Our medical facility is equipped with outpatient and inpatient services, a physical therapy area, pharmacy, radiology services, a dental treatment area, central sterilization and a single-bed operating room,” the DOD added in the statement. “Detainees are continually assessed, as medically indicated, for signs and…