What If Eating Caused You Excruciating Pain? This Man’s Impossible Choice

May 4, 2016

Michelle Shephard-Pool/Getty Images

I just ate an apple. Later, I’ll try to resist the temptation to munch on crackers. I keep hearing about the importance of a “clean diet.” I think that means no crackers. Maybe carrots instead?

As I make these decisions, I can’t help but compare them to the ones this torture survivor makes every day. If he eats, he will experience excruciating pain. If he wants to avoid the excruciating pain, he cannot eat.

This man weighs about 110 pounds. I have seen him through glass, in a makeshift courtroom at Guantanamo, and he seems frail, a wisp of a person, a man broken and hardly repaired. His name is Mustafa al Hawsawi.

He was sodomized by the CIA. In the clinical language of the U.S. government, he was subjected to a “rectal exam” conducted with “excessive force.”

The living consequences are described in medical terms that are hard to grasp: rectal prolapse, anal fissure (torn rectum) and chronic hemorrhoids. The result is that if he eats, he faces this path of pain: every time he defecates or strains, he is forced, in spite of excruciating pain, to manually re-insert the prolapsing tissue back into his rectal cavity with his fingers.

The first time I heard about this, I had to look it up. Prolapse literally means “to fall out of place” from the Latin prolabi, meaning “to fall out.”

Research it more, and the medical details get more gruesome. And they start to obscure other truths: this is humiliating and haunting. This condition is a daily reminder of the torture he suffered. It is a constant revival of torture, an indefinite aftermath to it.

His lawyers relay all of this to me, to human rights tribunals, to federal courts and to anyone who will listen. They are in some ways his lifeline. They protested when authorities at Guantanamo denied him a lubricant to re-insert his prolapsing tissue. They tried to get him special undergarments to mitigate the discomfort of his rectal injured areas. When they visit, they bring him digestive cookies.

But they are not doctors. They cannot examine him, treat him, or perform surgeries that will end his pain. He is at Guantanamo, an island prison, and he is at the mercy of the White House, or the Department of Defense, or someone powerful enough to intervene and get him some relief.

We at Amnesty International started gathering information about all of this months ago, launching an online action and writing the Department of Defense, State Department and White House. From the outset, the prospects for him getting the necessary medical care seemed extremely grim.

Everyone at Guantanamo is living through the nightmare of indefinite detention, now for well over than a decade, yet it goes on. And he is not just any Guantanamo detainee: He is a man on trial. He is alleged to have acted as a financier for the crimes against humanity that were the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Many people we talk to want to know, did he do it? It is horrendous for anyone to be in these circumstances, they admit, but still they want to know. We are not in a position to judge his guilt or innocence. But we know that, according to the Senate Torture report, the CIA’s chief interrogator at the time observed that “he does not appear to the [redacted] to be a person that is a financial mastermind.”

In any event, he faces the possibility of the death sentence imposed through an unfair trial by military commission. And we reject this system. Years of pre-trial proceedings in the commissions underscore that Guantanamo has not and cannot provide justice for the victims of 9/11.

But the U.S. government has invested in this broken system. And this fragile man may be its poster child. From a cynical perspective, the U.S. is unlikely to recognize and remedy the torture of a man it hopes to execute in a long-rehearsed show of belated justice.

The U.S. government says otherwise, though, and it makes promises to which we can hold it. Dr. Jonathan Woodson, at Department of Defense, recently wrote us to say that the military health system is making “extraordinary efforts to address all health care needs of detainees.” And Hawsawi’s lawyers have been told that he has just received a medical consultation, although we do not know key details.

For Hawsawi, people learning his story is a kind of salve. His pain is not hidden, anymore. It is exposed, stinging, a rebuke to those who trivialize torture – a warning to those who would have this country return to it.

His is a graphic, wrenching illustration of this: No one should be tortured, or left to suffer in their torture, no matter who they are. Not this man, not any other person, not in our names.

Take action: Tell the Defense Department to Give Mustafa al-Hawsawi Medical Care.

Learn more about Mustafa al-Hawsawi