Many torture victims have historically used the protest method of hunger striking to fight for change
Guarded by the Bahrain Defence Force, Al-Khawaja has not consumed food in about three months in protest of his ongoing mistreatment – both torture at the hands of military and police officials, and judicial mistreatment by the military court that found him guilty and delivered a life sentence for his involvement in last year’s protests. He further accused authorities of force feeding him during recent weeks, an accusation that they, of course, deny.
Hunger strikes have a long history among political dissidents, detainees, and, the politically powerless to advocate or coerce authorities into policy changes. It can be both a powerful tool for enacting change, and, by its nature, can also be extremely dangerous and even deadly for its participants. Some famous examples of hunger strikers include:
• Mohandas Gandhi during the British rule of India;
• Irish republicans in particular have a long history of hunger striking; but this tactic was famously used during the early 1980s by Bobby Sands and other prisoners of the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. Ten hunger strikers died in 1981;
• Among the longest and most deadly strikes were those that took place in Turkey, with the final wave beginning in 2000, over the government’s prison policy – the state was building new prisons that the protesters feared would be used for long-term solitary confinement for political dissidents, regardless of whether they had even been formally charged with a crime.
• At Guantanamo Bay, hunger strikes have been ongoing since 2005, when more than 120 detainees were on hunger strike at one point. Since then, this number has varied as the U.S. government has continued to force feed the strikers. It is unknown how many detainees remain on hunger strike today.
As hunger striking is often a tactic of absolute last resort, many torture victims have employed hunger strikes to protest their treatment and perhaps ongoing torture and detention.
Al-Khawaja is one such example; during his detention, which began in April of last year, he has been severely tortured by Bahrain authorities. In fact, his previous visit to the Bahrain military hospital where he is today was after such a severe beating in prison that he underwent surgery to have titanium plates inserted into the sides of his head.
Other U.S. prisoners, in California’s Pelican Bay Prison, have also engaged in limited hunger strikes in protest of long-term solitary confinement. They have since requested a formal ruling from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Juan Mendez, who has previously deemed long-term solitary confinement as torture.
Detainees at Guantamao Bay have too used hunger striking to protest their treatment and ongoing detention. However, rather than trying or freeing the Guantanamo detainees, or ceasing the ongoing torture and ill-treatment there, the U.S. government has instead been force-feeding hunger strikers since 2005 – both a violation of patients’ autonomy and another form or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
Force-feeding hunger strikers is often a highly controversial issue, none the least because it questions medical ethics and physicians adherence to set principles, such as ‘do no harm’, and requirements of patient consent. The World Medical Association has come out against force-feeding as it violates medical ethics, such as respecting patient autonomy, primary obligations to patients over employers, preventing maltreatment, and preventing harm. This is especially true in cases, such as in Guantanamo, where authorities are force-feeding hunger strikers well before the fast becomes life-threatening. Furthermore, the process of force-feeding itself – often inserting feeding tubes down an uncooperative patients’ nose or throat – can cause immense pain and suffering.
Most important to consider is that the vast majority of hunger strikers do not want to die. Death is not the goal, and a hunger strike is generally not considered suicide. It is a measure of last resort for an often powerless figure fighting for policy change, to end torture and mistreatment or for release from degrading and arbitrary detention.