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Gitmo Captives Say Medical Personnel Approved, Participated in Abuses

The New Standard
by Kari Lydersen
August 3, 2005

Saeed Sarim, a Yemeni detainee held by American captors at Guantánamo Bay, said that when a special squad of guards attacked him in 2003, one of the Guantánamo medical staff was in the room advising guards on how to beat him.

"He was regulating the process of the beating," Sarim said of the clinician, according to interviews conducted with detainees by the international law firm Allen & Overy. "This nurse who is regulating the beating process, he is the same person that was distributing medicine previously."

Another Yemeni detainee, Abdulaziz Al-Swidi, also told interviewers he observed nurses participating in beatings during interrogations at Guantánamo.

"The nurse participated with the riot squad by helping putting something in my nose to make me unable to breathe, and this is the same nurse that dispenses medicine and makes diagnoses," he said.

Sarim, Al-Swidi and other detainees maintain they are afraid to go to the Guantánamo clinic, even when they have serious medical problems, since the nurses there have allegedly participated in and overseen beatings and interrogations, according to Allen & Overy attorney Douglas Cox.

A complaint filed with the California Medical Board by the law firm charges that medical staff at Guantánamo are violating state, federal and international ethics rules by participating in interrogations and abuse of detainees and by sharing detainees' medical records with interrogators, allowing interrogators to use this knowledge to coerce or threaten detainees.

"No one in their right mind would trust a doctor knowing doctors are involved in interrogations." -- Leonard Rubenstein, Physicians for Human Rights

The complaint was filed with the California Medical Board on July 13, since the head doctor at the US Navy Hospital in Guantánamo, John Edmondson, is licensed by the state of California.

The complaint alleges that detainees' personal medical information was shared with interrogators and behavioral science teams involved in interrogation; that prisoners were refused medical attention until they cooperated with interrogators; that medical personnel participated in and were present during detainee abuse; and that basic medical care was not provided as needed.

In late July the Board informed the lawyers that it does not have jurisdiction over the matter.

Cox said they will appeal the Medical Board's decision and if necessary take the matter to the civil court system.

The complaint grew out of last summer's US Supreme Court ruling that Guantánamo detainees do have access to the US courts. Since then various law firms have been taking detainees' civil and human rights cases pro bono. Allen & Overy is working specifically with Yemeni detainees. They have eleven Yemeni clients, including four named in the complaint to the California Medical Board.

"It's gotten to the point where [our clients are] saying "we don't trust anything [the doctors] give us," Cox told The NewStandard. "We want them to have medical care, so even while we're taking these complaints we're trying to encourage them to seek care."

Detainee Abdul Al-Baidhani said he was refused medical help unless he talked to interrogators.

The Yemeni prisoners are not the first to accuse medical personnel of violating the ethics of their profession in their treatment of detainees. In October 2003 an independent, confidential investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross found that the military used psychological and physical coercion "tantamount to torture" on Guantánamo prisoners, and that medical personnel participated in planning interrogations.

The Red Cross report, which was quoted in a Department of Defense memorandum and by a handful of news agencies that obtained it, called this "a flagrant violation of medical ethics." It said medical information was conveyed to interrogators both directly by medical staff and through the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT, or "biscuit"), a group of psychologists and psychiatrists assigned to work with interrogators.

The Red Cross, which did not return a request to comment for this story, reported at the time that "medical files are being used by interrogators to gain information in developing an interrogation plan," which is "a breach of confidentiality between physician and patient."

In press conferences at the time, the US military refuted the Red Cross's findings, saying appropriate medical and interrogation practices were in place and violations were dealt with quickly on a case-by-case basis.

A report issued last month by Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley found that in detention facilities in Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, ethical medical practices were generally followed and records were kept secret from interrogators.

Critics note that the Army Surgeon General's report is based solely on interviews with military personnel, not detainees or independent observers.

"I think it's a flawed basis," said Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights. "All the facts suggest there are things they didn't look into. We know what kind of aggressive techniques are used there - humiliation, sleep deprivation, degradation. They didn't ask what role [medical personnel] played in those techniques."

Rubenstein noted that the Kiley report acknowledged that medical personnel with the BSCT team did provide support for interrogations. He says this is problematic even though the doctors were not acting in a care-giving capacity at that time.

"From the point of view of the detainees, they don't know what role the doctor [is assigned to at that time]," he said. "No one in their right mind would trust a doctor knowing doctors are involved in interrogations."

At a July 7 press conference regarding the report?s release, Kiley responded to numerous reporters' questions about the security of medical records and involvement of medical personnel in interrogations.

"The interrogators and BSCT members have a firewall, if we can use that term, between them and medical records," Kiley said at the press conference. "In our assessments with the BSCT members we found no evidence that there was a passing of clinical information that would be used in a detrimental way to torture."

Kiley said that in the early days of the facility, interrogators may have had access to medical records. The complaint to the California Medical Board alleges that interrogators had access to medical records through at least June 2004, and that the use of this medical knowledge against detainees is an ongoing problem.

During an interview with Allen & Overy attorneys, detainee Ali Al-Raimi said, "Over here the medical treatment is tied to the cooperation with the interrogators. I asked the doctor several times to give me medical assistance but the doctors told me unless I talk to the interrogators, they will not give me help."

Detainee Abdul Al-Baidhani, who has serious stomach problems requiring several surgeries, said he was constipated for three or four days and was refused medical help unless he talked to interrogators. He alleges his captors also failed to provide him an interpreter to explain a diagnosis about pain in his testicles.

Cox said they are consulting with a gastroenterologist for insight into Al-Baidhani's condition.

"This is a very lengthy, frustrating process to get what should be considered very standard, normal medical care for these guys," Cox said.

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