What did Ron DeSantis do in Guantanamo?

Former prisoner has told The Independent that Florida governor watched him be force-fed to such a degree that he was ‘bleeding and throwing up’

Richard Hall
Wednesday 27 September 2023 10:38 BST
Former Guantanamo prisoner: Ron DeSantis watched me being tortured

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has faced accusations that he watched prisoners being tortured at the prison at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba while he served at the base as a lawyer in the Navy.

Earlier this year, The Independent reported that a former prisoner – Mansoor Adayfi – alleged that Mr DeSantis observed his brutal force-feeding by guards during a hunger strike in 2006 – a practice the United Nations characterised as torture.

Mr Adayfi is a Yemeni citizen who was held for 14 years at the US Naval base.

Mr DeSantis was stationed at the base between March 2006 and January 2007, according to his military records, and part of his role involved hearing complaints and concerns from prisoners over their conditions.

“I was a junior officer. I didn’t have authority to authorise anything,” Mr DeSantis told Piers Morgan in an interview in March.

“There may have been a commander that would have done feeding if someone was going to die, but that was not something that I would have even had authority to do,” he added.

The Florida governor’s response did not address the central allegation from the detainee that he witnessed the force-feeding. Investigations by The IndependentThe Washington Post and other outlets did not report that Mr DeSantis authorised the force-feeding – rather, that he observed and was aware of the practice.

Mansoor Adayfi
Mansoor Adayfi (Slavoljub Milanović)

Two prisoners say DeSantis watched inmates be force-fed

Two prisoners held at the camp at the time Mr DeSantis was stationed there claim he witnessed the forced-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners. Mr Adayfi claims that Mr DeSantis had initially told him he was there for the detainees’ welfare. Part of his role was to field concerns and complaints from prisoners.

The US government has denied that force-feeding hunger strikers amounts to torture, and it has been used against prisoners over successive administrations during hunger strikes.

In 2006, the year Mr DeSantis arrived at Guantanamo, the camp was rocked by hunger strikes, violent riots and protests from prisoners over their conditions.

In February of that year, camp authorities began to implement a more aggressive regime of dealing with hunger strikers, according to a New York Times report from the time.

That method, according to the Times, involved “strapping some of the detainees into ‘restraint chairs’ to force-feed them and isolate them from one another after finding that some were deliberately vomiting or siphoning out the liquid they had been fed”.

‘He was watching, and I was really screaming, crying’

Mr Adayfi told The Independent that Mr DeSantis was present for a particularly brutal episode of force-feeding at the base.

“He was watching, and I was really screaming, crying,” Mr Adayfi said in a video call from his home in Belgrade earlier this year. “I was bleeding and throwing up. We were in the block yard, so they were close to the fence.”

Mr DeSantis has spoken sparingly of his time at Guantanamo Bay, where he served between March 2006 and January 2007 with the US Navy, at 27-years-old, as a judge advocate general (JAG), a job which entailed providing legal representation to military personnel and ensuring the US military complied with the law.

Then-congressman forcefully argued for Guantanamo to remain open

Since serving at the military prison, Mr DeSantis has consistently argued for it to remain open, and spoken against the release of prisoners, even though most are held for years without charge.

At a congressional hearing chaired by Mr DeSantis in 2016, the then-congressman forcefully argued for Guantanamo to remain open.

“The president’s conclusion that the detention facility should be closed is based in part on his idea that the facility is a recruiting tool for Islamic jihadists, but this represents a misunderstanding of the nature of the terrorist threats we face,” he said. “These are not the type of people that will abandon their jihad against America and our allies simply because we close Guantanamo Bay,” he told the House of Representatives Subcommittee of National Security, part of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

In the same session, he spoke briefly of his time there.

“When I was in the Navy I was there for a time and it is a very professionally run facility. Anybody in this room would rather spend a night there than in the Fallujah jail. I mean, it is just night and day. And the people that are guarding that facility are under an awful lot of pressure because those detainees are very hostile to them,” he said.

In a campaign ad for his successful 2018 run for governor, images of Mr DeSantis in his navy uniform are shown as a narrator described him as a “JAG officer who dealt with terrorists at Guantanamo Bay”.

Years later, now released from the camp without charge and trying to rebuild his life in Serbia, Mr Adayfi came across a photograph online of someone he said he recognised.

He said he knew the man as a young Navy lawyer stationed at the prison, but now he had a name: Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida.

Adayfi says many of the force-feeding incidents took place outside the Oscar and November blocks of Delta Camp
Adayfi says many of the force-feeding incidents took place outside the Oscar and November blocks of Delta Camp (Independent )

‘I’m here to ensure that you get treated humanely and properly’

When they first met, he didn’t know his name – camp staff do not use their real names around prisoners for security reasons – but the man he would later come to learn was Mr DeSantis told Mr Adayfi that he was there to help him.

“I don’t remember exactly when DeSantis came because we had no watch, no calendar, nothing,” he said. “He came to talk to us along [with] others – medical staff and interpreters. And we explained to him why we were on hunger strike. And he told us, ‘I’m here to ensure that you get treated humanely and properly.’ We were talking about our problems with the brothers, the torture, the abuses, the no healthcare.”

“This was something strange because nobody told us that before,” Mr Adayfi added.

Mr DeSantis was memorable for his appearance, too.

“He was handsome with beautiful eyes,” he said.

Mr Adayfi recalls that he initially believed Mr DeSantis when he told him he was there to help, but he said that quickly changed after he claims he was present for his force-feeding. On the day in question, Mr Adayfi said Mr DeSantis was standing behind a fence in the yard behind the November and Oscar blocks of Camp Delta, watching him being strapped to the chair and force-fed.

“He was there with medical staff, there was other officers, there was some interpreters. There was like a group of them there,” he said.

In his memoir, Don’t Forget Us Here, Lost and Found at Guantánamo, Mr Adayfi describes one incident of force-feeding in detail.

“Guards pushed me into the chair. They tightened the chest harness so that I couldn’t move, then strapped my wrists and legs to the chair. Every point of my body was tightly restrained – I couldn’t move at all. One of the male nurses stood in front of me holding a long, thick rubber tube with a metal tip. Another nurse grabbed my head and held it tightly while the male nurse forces that huge tube into my nose. No numbing spray. No lubricant. Raw rubber and metal sliced the inside of my nose and throat. Pain shot through my sinuses and I thought my head would explode. I screamed and tried to fight but I couldn’t move. My nose bled and bled, but the nurse wouldn’t stop.

“When they were done feeding me, the nurse pulled hard on the tube and ripped it out of my body. It felt like a knife coming through my nose and it bled badly. Blood ran everywhere. I couldn’t breathe and my stomach was so full I thought I would explode.”

World Medical Association: Force-feeding is ‘inhuman and degrading’

The World Medical Association said in 2006 that the force-feeding of hunger strikers “constitutes a form of inhuman and degrading treatment”.

Mr Adayfi was insistent that the man he knew as a lawyer at Guantanamo was Mr DeSantis. Mr Adayfi’s description of his initial interaction with Mr DeSantis, for example, where he claims the young lawyer explained his role at the camp, matches the description given by Mr DeSantis’s superior of his job. The dates of key events in the camp during 2006 – such as the deaths of three prisoners – match publicly available information regarding the timeline of Mr DeSantis’s posting.

“At that time, I don’t want to see his face. But other prisoners, they talked to him. Some of the prisoners splashed him with faeces and urine and spit on him,” he said.

Mr Adayfi was released from the prison camp in 2016 with no charges. In 2020, he saw a photograph of Mr DeSantis online. He said he shared the image with some other released former detainees, who also recognised him.

Mr Adayfi is not the only former detainee who said that they recognised Mr DeSantis from their time at the prison camp.

Ahmed Abdel Aziz, a former prisoner who was released after 13 years without being charged with a crime and is currently back at home in Mauritania, also claims that Mr DeSantis witnessed the force-feeding at Guantanamo.

‘Most of the people in there, once we see them, we don’t forget them’

Although he did not take part in the hunger strike himself, Mr Aziz tells The Independent that he witnessed “dozens” of force-feeding sessions in 2006 himself, and it was not uncommon for large groups of camp staff to watch them from the side.

“Sometimes a big bunch of people will come, sometimes two or three, sometimes the medical staff would come alone with the guards. Among them was this man,” he said, referring to Mr DeSantis.

“He was not there all the time,” he said. “He was watching. He cannot stop it, he doesn’t have the authority, but he could stand against that or write to his higher-ups, to Washington, to other departments and tell them what’s going on.”

”As soon as I saw his picture I know him very well because he spent a long time there, maybe six months or eight months,” he said. “Most of the people in there, once we see them, we don’t forget them.”

Mr Adayfi said, “I’m not trying to say DeSantis was giving orders to the force-feeding. I didn’t see him giving orders to the guards, and I don’t think he was in a position to give orders to the guards. But he was there watching. He knows about everything – about the hunger strike, the torture, the abuse in the camps. And his job was to ensure that we were treated humanely”.

Mr DeSantis’s military records show that he had duties at Guantanamo Bay Naval base between 1 March 2006 and 31 January 2007. His duties are listed as “Trial Counsel, Command Services Attorney,” as well as JTF-GTMO scheduler/administrative officer.”

Retired Navy captain Patrick McCarthy, who served as staff judge advocate at the detention facility and supervised Mr DeSantis, said in a 2018 interview that his duties required interacting with detainees and hearing their complaints.

“If any complaints were raised, Ron would have been among the folks I sent down to talk to the detainees,” Mr McCarthy told the Miami Herald. He said in the same interview that Mr DeSantis would have made sure the complaints “were addressed in a way that was consistent with the law”.

In his book, The Courage to be Free, Mr DeSantis wrote that part of the reason he enlisted in the military in 2004 was so that he might be able to take part in prosecutions at the camp.

“One recruiter told me that the assumption was that the Iraq campaign would be over relatively quickly and that there would be a need for military [judge advocate general’s] to lead prosecutions in military commissions of incarcerated terrorists at Guantánamo Bay,” he wrote. He added that it “seemed like a good opportunity to make an impact”.

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