The Talking Dog

March 21, 2006, TD Blog Interview with Dr. David Nicholl

On March 11, 2006, an explosive letter appeared in Britain's prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, decrying the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and in particular, the practice of force-feeding hunger-striking detainees. Dr. David Nicholl, a neurologist based in Birmingham, England, and a human rights activist, was the lead signatory to that letter, which was signed by over 250 physicians from throughout the world. Subsequently, Dr. Nicholl was interviewed by the BBC, by Britain's Channel 4, and by CNN.

On March 19, 2006, Dr. Nicholl was kind enough to answer a few of my own questions, by exchange of e-mails.

The Talking Dog Largely for solipsistic reasons involving being in downtown Manhattan myself, my obligatory first question is always "where were you on 11 September 2001"? I'll start with that question. I'll then also ask you were you were on the day of the London bombings (7 July 2005), and, because I know that you hail from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and that you have had medical training in, among other places, Cape Town, South Africa, I would like to know if you have ever been directly involved with seeing terrorism, as either a witness, or for example, providing medical treatment to its victims (and I'll consider "the troubles" or anything associated with the fall of apartheid to fall into that category)?

David Nicholl: 11th Sept 2001, I was on holiday on a beach in Wales on a beautiful sunny day watching my 1 year old daughter crawling across the sand. Truly a perfect day, and then I switched the car radio on, and all our lives changed.

7th July, 2005- sitting in clinic examining a patient when my cell phone goes off, and its my registrar calling telling me not to come down to London for a scheduled meeting as there are bombs going off everywhere. My registrar missed the Russells Square bomb by about 5 minutes.

Northern Ireland- no direct involvement with acts of terrorism. Best friend's dad was murdered by Republican terrorists. My Dad's car was stolen by IRA for a bank robbery (left a few empty rounds in the trunk I recall). A very close relative was a high ranking officer in an army regiment responsible for one half of Northern Ireland- to be honest, I don't know how he is still alive as he lived very close to the border in a very dangerous area, so he could have been picked off by the IRA without too much bother.

Medical treatment of victims- I have seen many asylum seekers as patients who have been witnesses to. e.g. the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, victims of torture from Iran and Iraq, bombings in Afghanistan etc., etc.

I worked in Cape Town in 1994 just before the first democratic election- very interesting time as everyone predicted there would be a civil war when there wasn't.

After school, I was a foreign exchange student in Boca Raton, Florida in 1983-84. I can still recall this student saying with pride that her granddad sent $50/month to support the IRA. I didn't know what to say to her. The next day, the IRA blew up Harrods in London killing 6 and injuring 75 others in an indiscriminate attack. I wish could have spoken to her then!!

The Talking Dog: Can you tell me about your work with human rights groups, specifically Amnesty International UK and Physicians for Human Rights, and any others, and what led to your involvement? Included in that question, I understand that you ran the London Flora Marathon last year in an orange jump suit and chains to raise money for Amnesty International. Can you comment further on that experience?

David Nicholl: I am also involved with Reprieve and Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture.

Information about the marathon experience is at Dave's 2005 marathon challenge.

Where do I begin? Like all good stories, everything I'm about to say is true, but some names have been changed to protect identities. I am a 40 year old consultant neurologist at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and City Hospital, Birmingham. I have been a member of Amnesty International (AI) for 20 years since I was a medical student, but have never really been an activist. I've written the odd letter, but never joined a local AI group. I am happily married with 3 young children and live in a very comfortable part of rural Worcestershire where most people's idea of stress is whether to have a new BMW or a new Audi, and what their personalised number plate should be.

So what made me run the Flora London Marathon (FLM) dressed as a Guantanamo internee? The turning point for me was after September 11th. I had become a Christian in 2000 after the birth of our first child, and I can still recall a very powerful sermon which our Minister gave just prior to the outbreak of the Afghanistan conflict. Essentially his message boiled down to "turning the other cheek" and the West needed to face up to the fundamental injustices between the developed and developing World. I didn't agree with that sermon at that time, and basically felt we should bomb the hell out of Bin Laden and the Taliban, but clearly there was a message in that sermon which ultimately struck a chord. In 2002, I became increasingly disturbed at the worsening racial tensions within this country, the Iraq war, human rights abuses within Iraq against everybody, Guantanamo Bay etc and general air of Islamophobia etc. I was very impressed by the dignity with which Azmat Begg (father of detainee Moazeem Begg) had spoke out for justice for his son. Similarly, I became increasingly irritated by the inaction of the government on this issue when I and others wrote letters etc. In 2004, I started running, largely because of the inspiration of one of my friends who started running as she overcome breast cancer. Then just prior to running my first Great North Run, when I was out running (and having a quiet prayer) minding my own business, when I really felt God speaking to me. I always wanted to run the London marathon, but what would Jesus do if he was running the marathon? Jesus was an asylum seeker, immigrant and also detained without trial and crucified. Well I can't change being a white middle class Christian doctor, but I can show the world that Christians do care wherever they see abuse and pain. Indeed the very fact I did not meet the usual activist stereotype and wasn't Muslim made the image all the more powerful..I was not one of the "Usual Suspects." as far as the Press were concerned. So I suppose my inspiration was very much along the lines of the "Good Samaritan". Originally, I had thought of running the New York marathon dressed like this, but (fortunately) my wife became pregnant which put paid to this altogether more risky strategy.

Just before Christmas 2004, I found out that I had a place with Amnesty for the marathon and that settled it. I e-mailed all my mates on New Years eve to let them know what I was planning for 2005, and started trawling the Internet for appropriate clothing as essentially I needed to have an outfit that was both convincing and that I could run 26 miles in.alive!! In addition, I approached Azmat Begg (via the Guanatanamo Human Rights Commission), as I wanted to make sure that the Begg family were agreeable with my plan, and I started my running training in earnest. Eventually I sourced a
medical equipment company medical equipment company that made orange surgical scrubs. Ironically, the outfits were actually made in George Bush's home state of Texas.

In February 2005, I went to a service of thanksgiving for the release of Moazeem Begg and the remaining British citizens from Guantanamo at St Martins-in-the-Field Church near Trafalgar Square organised by the Guanatanamo Human Rights Commission. The vicar recounted how this church in many ways was where Amnesty International began. The catalyst for the original campaign was Peter Benenson's sense of outrage after reading an article on the Tube about the arrest and imprisonment of two students in a café in Lisbon, Portugal, who had drunk a toast to liberty. He reportedly got off the train and sat in one of the back pews of St Martins-in-the-Field thinking about what could be done. From that idea, he helped set up AI in 1961. As I thought about this, I thought how angry I was about Guantanamo, I quickly popped out of the service to change into my Guantanamo gear. Afterwards I went up to Terry Waite, told him what I was doing, and asked for his picture to help with publicity. This subsequently helped with 'hooking' the Press onto the story later.

As my training came on, I realized I needed to do a 'test' run in full kit to see what problem there might be. Being discrete, I needed to know how much Vaseline to use and where! However, I also thought this would be an excellent press opportunity by doing a half-marathon in my gear from my home to the Law Courts in the centre of Birmingham where I was met by Moazeem Begg and his family. The week before the AI press office and gone overboard so there were lots of local radio and TV interviews the week before and the day of the run. It was an odd way to have my first meeting with Moazeem Begg. A pack of journalists running after me asking for my first impression of Moazeem whilst trying to catch my breath after 12 miles of running. My first impression was actually "He's short", but I realised that this was not exactly the profound quote the Press would be looking for, so I went for "I think he's incredibly brave to face you lot after what he's been through" or something similar.

When I saw my TV interview, I realized that you shouldn't talk about human rights after running, there is just too much adrenaline going- you look angry, and hence people think you're probably a nutter! Nonetheless, both AI and I were extremely pleased with the Press coverage. A few weeks later, I was due to go to my home town of Belfast for a neurological conference, so I contacted the Belfast Amnesty office to see if it was worth doing a similar stunt when I was over in Belfast. We did a similar run to the US consulate and were covered in all the Northern Irish and Irish papers, The Times and local radio and TV..I made sure I stayed calm this time- Alistair Campbell would have been proud of me! However, the Belfast run had been difficult for lots of reasons. World events never get viewed quite the same way in Northern Ireland as they do in the rest of the planet. At the start of my week, I had a very close relative tell me that "Amnesty were a bunch of IRA sympathizers". By the end of that week, that same relative had given me a £50 sponsorship cheque- this told me that no-one is immune to change.

Thus with the final week of my marathon training, the pressure was really on. There was the very real anxiety as to whether I would even finish due to a knee injury that I'd picked 3 weeks before the race. Believe me, it is not the marathon that is a killer, it is all that training. Plus, the amount of e-mail and press stuff was building up. On the final Friday, the London Amnesty office had confirmation that I plus 5 others could go to the steps of Downing Street the day before the marathon to hand in a letter of protest. In addition, BBC News 24 said they wanted to do a live studio interview. So I drove down to London with the family more nervous about the events for the day before the marathon rather than the day itself. Anyhow the News 24 interview went great on the Saturday morning. In fact, too well. When I got down to Downing Street and met the relatives of some of the British residents who are still being held in Guantanamo, it was pretty clear someone from No 10's press office had seen the interview and basically thought we can't have this lot on the steps of Downing Street three weeks before the Election. Our access had mysteriously been denied.

Nonetheless it was humbling to meet the 3 families of current detainees (Saeed Siddique, 62, father-in-law of a British resident - Shaker Abdur-Raheem Aamer (originally from Saudi Arabia) - being held in Guantanamo Bay. Mr Aamer, 38, has been held without charge or trial at Guantanamo Bay since February 2002. Amani Deghayes, sister of British resident - Omar Deghayes (originally from Libya) - being held in Guantanamo Bay. Mohammed Kiyemba, whose brother Jamal Kiyemba (originally from Uganda) - another UK resident - is similarly being held in Cuba.

The day of the race, the atmosphere was fantastic. Several runners came up to me, who had clearly seen the News 24 interview, and this definitely spurred me on.

Humour is a fantastic way to get people to think of even a very complex issue such as Guantanamo Bay. I did this in 2 ways:

By singing Englebert Humperdink's "Please Release Me en route (see photo) and by shouting out at the end of each mile "Only another 25 miles of torture to go", I have to say my fellow runners got somewhat fatigued with this tactic by the half-way mark, but the crowd seemed to still find the joke funny. I also had a very loud whistle to draw attention to myself for those who were colour blind.

Having not been an activist before, the marathon has had a profound affect on me. I've got fitter, more confident and spiritually stronger. I'm working on other campaigns, eg trying to get Fair Trade Products into hospitals. This running is a dangerous malarkey!

What was the weirdest thing BEFORE the marathon? Finding out that the shackles used in Guantanamo are made by a Birmingham company!

What was the weirdest thing AFTER the marathon?

Finding out that during my training runs, I'd been running past the front door of the chairman of the above shackle company. No prizes for guessing what the next campaign was then!

The Talking Dog In your letter you asserted that the military had a specific policy of not assigning medical personnel to Guantanamo unless they indicated that they had no qualms about involuntary force-feeding. What is the basis of your knowledge of that?

David Nicholl: This is documented in the New England Journal of Medicine, December 15th 2005 edition. Another version of that article is here.

The Talking Dog: I had heard from at least one detainee's counsel that his understanding was that prior to the hunger strikes of prisoners, the quality of medical care at Guantanamo for detainees was "comparable to perhaps good veterinarians", but since the hunger strikes, the military has brought in very skilled practitioners to keep these people alive (whether they like it or not). Can you comment on that?

These questions can best be answered by reading the government's own court papers from the Al Joudi case involving conditions for Guantanamo detainees can be found in these links:
Al Joudi court papers, part 1,
part 2,
part 3, and
part 4.

Of particular interest are
Dr. Edmondson's Affidavit, and
Dr. Edmondson's letter to me.

The restraint chairs they use are at this link.,0.jpg

The Talking Dog: Can you tell me if you have spoken to detainees, or detainees' counsel?

I've spoken to Clive Stafford-Smith, human rights lawyer, and counsel to a number of detainees numerous times. I've also spoken to Moazzeem Begg, ex Gitmo detainee (from the UK), numerous times, and to Mamdouh Habib, ex Gitmo detainee who was forcefed (from Australia); he has spoken to me once.

The Talking Dog: I understand that there is a civil action pending in California concerning possible professional discipline for violating medical ethics against the medical director at Guantanamo, Captain John Edmondson. Are you familiar with that action, and do you have anything to do with it?

David Nicholl: I have lodged complaints against Dr. Edmondson to medical authorities in California and Georgia.

I'm sure join all of my readers in thanking Dr. Nicholl for being kind enough to take the time to answer my questions, and to provide the documents he sent along that shed a great deal of light on specific aspects of how detainees at Guantanamo are being treated in American custody, as well as the contentions of those responsible for their care.

Readers may also find talking dog blog interviews with attorneys Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing other Guantanamo detainees) and with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila) to be of interest.


Thanks Tdog for getting that. As a person who has run marathons, I can barely imagine doing what he did. Good for him.

Also you might be interested in a little traffic blocking action some San Francisco activists did last Monday in those orange jump suits. The event was surprisingly powerful.

Posted by janinsanfran at March 23, 2006 10:41 PM

I just love these interviews; thank you so much for putting them up. Your practice of asking people where they were on 9/11 is also just terrific -- not solipsistic at all. We need to have our experts humanized for us to remind us of the fundamentally human nature of expertise.

Posted by Amanda French at March 25, 2006 8:55 AM