Middle East

Doctors Accuse U.S. of
‘Unethical Practices’ at Guantanamo Bay

By Jeremy Laurance

More than 260 doctors from around the world have launched an unprecedented attack on the American medical establishment for its failure to condemn unethical practices by medical practitioners at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.

In a letter to The Lancet, the doctors from 16 countries, including Britain and America, say the failure of the U.S. regulatory authorities to act is “damaging the reputation of U.S. military medicine.”

They compare the actions of the military doctors, whom they accuse of being involved in the force-feeding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and of turning a blind eye to evidence of torture in Iraq and elsewhere, to those of the South African security police involved in the death of the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko 30 years ago.

The group highlighted the force-feeding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay last year and suggested the physicians involved should be referred to their professional bodies for breaching internationally accepted ethical guidelines. The doctors wrote: “No healthcare worker in the War on Terror has been charged or convicted of any significant offence despite numerous instances documented including fraudulent record-keeping on detainees who have died as a result of failed interrogations.... The attitude of the U.S. military establishment appears to be one of ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.’”

The U.S. introduced the policy of force-feeding, in which prisoners are strapped to a chair and a tube is forced down the throat into the stomach, after more than 100 prisoners went on hunger strike in 2005.

“Fundamental to doctors’ responsibilities in attending a hunger striker is the recognition that prisoners have a right to refuse treatment,” the doctors wrote.

After last year’s protest, David Nicholl, consultant neurologist at City Hospital Birmingham, who led the protest, lodged formal complaints with two medical boards, in California and Georgia in the United States. He also lodged a complaint with the American Medical Association, of which John Edmondson, the former hospital commander at Guantanamo Bay, was a member.

Writing in today’s Lancet, Dr. Nicholl and his co-signatories, say: “After 18 months there had been no reply from the AMA, the Californian authorities stated that they ‘do not have the jurisdiction to investigate incidents that occurred on a federal facility/military base,’ and the authorities in Georgia stated that the ‘complaint was thoroughly investigated,’ but ‘the Board concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to support prosecution.’”

When the same complaint was considered by the Royal College of Physicians in the UK, the college concluded: “In England, this would be a criminal act.”

Dr. Nicholl said it was “vitally important” that doctors independent of the U.S. military were allowed to investigate the care of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the deaths of detainees (there were three reported suicides in June 2006). But a British Medical Association request to send a delegation of doctors to the prison camp had been refused by the UK Government.

The Independent, October 7, 2007