When I saw Guantanamo torture, I was horrified. What did Ron DeSantis think?

I saw the pain and the humiliation and heard the screaming. Only a sadist could impose and witness such treatment without grave concern and soul-sickness

Eric Lewis
New York
Friday 17 March 2023 16:03 GMT

Guantanamo prisoners began sporadic hunger strikes in 2002, the year they arrived. By mid-2005, after the Department of Defense had reneged on commitments and there had been widespread violence and abuse, the detainees began hunger strikes on a mass scale, with estimates as high as 200 in late 2005.

The Department of Defense responded by putting in place a painful and humiliating program of force-feeding, where prisoners were dragged out of their cells and put into a five-point restraint chair, had wide rubber tubing shoved down their throats, and where they remained strapped during the feeding and for long periods thereafter to prevent them from vomiting their food. Rather than leave in a permanent tube, tubes were inserted and removed, often causing bleeding, three times a day. Detainees were often over-fed, vomiting or defecating on themselves as they were pinioned helplessly. Three detainees committed suicide in June 2006, after a regimen of force-feeding.

A number of my force-fed clients had their health permanently affected by long-term hunger striking as well as cruelly administered force-feeding. Experts on force-feeding testified that the tubing used was generally 110mm, which was too wide and was inserted blindly, leading to a high rate of misplacement, perforation, breakage, infection and aspiration. To US officials, hunger striking was a technique that illustrated the detainees’ sympathy for terrorism and force-feeding was a necessary remedy. A senior Guantanamo official refused to entertain the notion that these uncharged men were protesting their cruel and Kafka-esque detention, instead declaring, “Hunger striking is an Al Qaeda tactic used to elicit media attention and also to bring pressure on the US government.”

The CIA’s secret report on Guantanamo confirmed that at least five prisoners were not simply force-fed, but force-fed through their rectums, a practice of no medical benefit but which the authorities viewed as “a means of behavior control”. One medical officer wrote that “[w]hile IV infusion is safe and effective, we were impressed with the ancillary effectiveness of rectal of ending the water refusal.” A leading medical expert on torture, Dr. Sandra Crosby, said in a recent case, “There is no medical benefit ever to administering any form of nutrition through the rectum.” In other words, forcible high-pressure enemas provided no benefit for hydration or nutrition, but they sure worked to coerce detainees to stop their hunger strikes.

When litigating the legality of force-feeding on behalf of multiple detainees, I and our team of lawyers from the human rights nonprofit Reprieve learned that the US government had made 34 videos of the force-feeding of one of our clients, but it had designated them “SECRET” to prevent their existence from becoming public. The government claimed that making public those videos could lead to terrorist attacks. As counsel, I watched those horrific videos. 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.

Enter a young Navy lieutenant named Ron DeSantis. As The Independent has reported, DeSantis — who arrived at Guantanamo around March 2006 — is alleged to have witnessed the torture through force-feeding of hunger strikers during the months he spent at Guantanamo. As a very junior Navy lawyer, DeSantis was charged with discussing the detainees’ treatment with them directly, so many of the men there had regular interaction with him. Retired Navy Captain Patrick McCarthy, who served as the staff judge advocate at Guantánamo in 2006, told McClatchyNews that DeSantis was among the lawyers he would send “to speak with detainees when there were any complaints.” Retired Colonel Michael Bumgarner, commander of the Joint Detention Group during DeSantis’ time there, alsotold McClatchy: “He would have had very, very intimate knowledge” of the prisoners’ conditions.

Former detainees have claimed to The Independent that DeSantis not only knew about the abusive force-feeding, but witnessed it. Mansoor Adayfi, a Yemeni released in 2016 after 14 years, said that DeSantis initially told him, “I am here to ensure that you are treated humanely,” but DeSantis’ actions did not seem to match up with that. According to Adayfi, DeSantis personally observed one of his force-feedings. “He was watching, and I was really screaming, crying,” Adayfi, a Yemeni, told The Independent in a lengthy video interview from his home in Belgrade. “I was bleeding and throwing up.” DeSantis has since advocated for keeping the Guantanamo facility open.

A second detainee, a Mauritanian named Ahmed Abdul Aziz, who spent 13 years at Guantanamo, said he saw DeSantis attending the force-feedings, noting that many naval officers did so.

“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,” Abdul Aziz told The Independent.

DeSantis has been notably reticent about describing his role when he was there, but has been consistently gung-ho about operations at Guantanamo. He called it a “very professionally run facility” when he was in Congress, also voting to defund the Obama-era office within the Pentagon to close it. Ignoring the ordeal of the torture victims, DeSantis did note that Guantanamo is “a very stressful environment for our uniformed personnel who are there.”

We are unlikely to know exactly what DeSantis did with respect to innocent detainees, but all of this appears consistent with his cruel indifference toward those whom he can bully and mock without consequence.

Long after DeSantis left Guantanamo Bay, I told a court, “My client does not want to die. He wants to be treated like a human being.” 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.

Eric Lewis is a human rights lawyer who sits on the board of The Independent.

Ron DeSantis’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in