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Lawyers and rights groups calls for greater scrutiny of DeSantis’s Guantanamo record

Lawyers who represent detainees at Guantanamo said the allegations could do ‘incredible damage’ to the standing of the United States. Richard Hall reports

Tuesday 21 March 2023 01:37 GMT
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The Florida governor served at Guantanamo as a Navy JAG lawyer
The Florida governor served at Guantanamo as a Navy JAG lawyer (original)

Lawyers and human rights activists have called for greater scrutiny of Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s time serving as a Navy JAG lawyer at Guantanamo Bay, amid accusations from former detainees that he observed their torture.

The calls come as a former detainee at the camp, Mansoor Adayfi, claimed in an interview with The Independent that Mr DeSantis witnessed his force-feeding, a practice he described as torture.

Mr DeSantis served at Guantanamo between March 2006 and January 2007, a time when the notorious prison camp was rocked by riots, hunger strikes and death.

He has revealed few details about his duties at the time, but has consistently argued for it to remain open.

Anas Mustapha, head of public advocacy at CAGE, which campaigns for communities impacted by the War on Terror, said Mr DeSantis’s rise to the governorship and frontrunner status for the 2024 GOP nomination “reveals a worrying lack of scrutiny into his tenure as a JAG Officer at Guantanamo Bay prison in 2006”.

Mr Mustapha told The Independent that the allegations that Mr DeSantis witnessed torture at Guantanamo would do “incredible damage to the US’ standing and will critically undermine its claims to promote human rights” if he became president.

“His behaviour is certainly cruel by any standard. It is unnerving considering he may be leading policy at the White House,” he added.

“That DeSantis has been able to secure a position in the upper echelons of US politics, despite being complicit in the torture and abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, shows the disregard the US government has for human rights – the very notion it used in the propagation of its disastrous and calamitous so-called ‘War on Terror,’” he said in a press release issued last week as the allegations first broke.

For those familiar with the finer details of the force-feeding regime at Guantanamo, the news was met with a mixture of concern and a lack of surprise.

Eric Lewis, a human rights lawyer who represented clients who were held at Guantanamo, wrote in an op-ed for The Independent that he watched videos of the force-feeding at the prison camp as part of his legal duties.

“I saw the pain and the humiliation and heard the screaming as my client was pinned to a chair and had overly wide, under-lubricated rubber tubing shoved blindly, quickly and forcibly down his throat, through his digestive tract and into his stomach. Only a sadist could impose and witness such treatment without grave concern and soul-sickness,” Mr Lewis, who sits on the board of The Independent, wrote.

“To my mind, relying on Ron DeSantis to feel empathy for torture victims was a fool’s errand then and would be one again if he runs for president in 2024,” he added.

Clive Stafford Smith, also a lawyer, who represents several detainees at Guantanamo and has protested against the force-feeding of hunger strikers previously, told The Independent that it was “not in the least surprising” that Mr DeSantis had remained quiet about his time serving at the notorious prison.

“He talks tough about ‘being in Guantanamo’ but omits any discussion of abuses. But then most people who were at Abu Ghraib prefer just to say they served in the Iraq War too,” he said.

In an op-ed for The Independent, Mr Stafford Smith wrote that camp authorities stepped up their efforts to break the hunger strikes of detainees in February 2006.

“The Istanbul Protocol makes it clear that it is unethical to force-feed a competent individual who has decided on a peaceful protest, even unto death,” he said.

“In Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military decided not to respect the Protocol. That is hardly surprising. They did not respect any other provisions of the law, including the UN Convention Against Torture, so why begin with what is essentially an ethical proscription?”

Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo prisoner, and the present Director of Outreach for CAGE, wrote in an op-ed for The Independent that he had spoken to former detainees who also remembered Mr DeSantis from their time there.

“If DeSantis became president, it would be a new low for the US,” he wrote.

“This wouldn’t be Donald Trump boasting that he believes torture ‘absolutely works’ or talking about his desire to ‘load Guantanamo with bad dudes’. This would be something much more tangible”

He added: “If that happens, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least. The US regularly claims to embody the very highest ideals of justice and accountability, while in practice doing the complete opposite.”

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