Guantánamo Bay detainees appeal ‘inhumane’ force-feeding

Lawyers for three inmates hope to persuade a federal judge to stop nasal tube feeding at the prison

A feeding tube and a bottle of the liquid food supplement force-fed to hunger strikers at Guantánamo Bay.
Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images

Three hunger strikers at Guantánamo Bay will take their petition to end "inhumane" force-feeding at the detention center to a federal court in Washington, D.C., on Friday. Their lawyers stated that the practice amounts to a violation of the men's human rights.

The fresh appeal follows a district court's denial in July of an order that would have prevented guards at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba from continuing to force-feed, a painful process by which liquid meals are administered through tubes inserted down the nose and into the stomach.   

Lawyers for Syrian national Abu Wa'el Dhiab; Shaker Aamer, a Saudi citizen and resident of the U.K.; and Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian citizen, say the invasive procedure is "inhumane, degrading and a violation of medical ethics." It is also unlawful, they say.

The three hunger strikers are among more than 80 inmates who have been cleared for release from the facility by the U.S. government following an assessment by the Guantánamo Review Task Force set up by President Barack Obama, according to court filings.

Despite that, all three remain in custody because of restrictions passed by Congress on the transfer of detainees to the U.S. and other countries. 

Aamer has been behind bars for more than 11 years despite never being charged with a crime and being cleared for release by the George W. Bush administration as early as 2007.

On Thursday, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Thomas Pickering added his voice to those calling for Aamer's release. At the launch of a report on detainee treatment, produced by a panel of former security and military figures as well as U.S. politicians, Pickering said, "The U.S. should immediately release Aamer or give reasons for his continued detention."

The U.K. government has likewise repeatedly called for him to be returned.

In total, 164 detainees remain at the base. Of those, 15 are currently on hunger strike and being force-fed, according to Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, a spokesman at Guantánamo Bay.

The number of inmates refusing food has dropped from a high of 106 earlier this year. In court filings, lawyers for the detainees said that in a bid to break the action, guards had used tactics including taking away the inmates' right to perform communal Ramadan prayers. Such methods violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the men's lawyers said.

Friday's appeal stems from the denial by a pair of judges in July of an earlier injunction sought by the men. Both Judge Rosemary Collyer and Judge Gladys Kessler found that the district court in D.C. lacked the jurisdiction to rule on the matter. 

Despite the fact that Kessler said that Dhiab's detention had become "indefinite" and that force-feeding is "a painful, humiliating and degrading process," she denied the injunction on the basis of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which in part states that "no court, justice or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any other action against the United States or its agents relating to any aspect of the detention, transfer, treatment, trial or conditions of confinement of an alien who is or was detained by the United States."

However, Jon Eisenberg, lawyer for the detainees involved in the appeal, told Al Jazeera that the court does have the right to "address human rights violations."

As for the current situation at Guantánamo Bay, Clive Stafford Smith, the founder and director of the London-based rights group Reprieve, said, "What's been going on with these guys is terribly illegal and wrong."

"None of these prisoners want to die from starvation; neither do they want to die (in detention) from old age or desperation," Smith told Al Jazeera.

‘Degrading and un-American’

Cori Crider, a lawyer who is also with Reprieve, said she hoped the appeal hearing "will recognize that force-feeding the way it is done at Gitmo is degrading and un-American, and that they ultimately decide to stop it."

"At the very least I hope the Obama administration is put through its paces: You can't say out of one side of your mouth force-feeding is not 'who we are' and defend it in court out the other," Crider told Al Jazeera. 

Earlier this year Obama renewed a pledge he had made as a presidential candidate in 2008 to close Guantánamo Bay, adding that he would "re-engage with Congress" in an attempt to make the case that keeping the facility open was not "in the best interest of the American people."

Smith said the fact that the detainees have not been freed despite being cleared is a sign that "it's all politics," adding that some in the U.S. want to use the detainees as a "political football."

"The Republicans want the world to think that everyone in Guantánamo is a terrorist," he said. 

However, Filostrat said that U.S. courts have consistently upheld the legality of the enteral (tube) feeding.  

"The enteral feeding procedure is medically sound, and is based on procedures performed not only in U.S. prisons, but in hospitals and nursing homes worldwide," he told Al Jazeera in an email. 

Crider said that what will happen at Friday's hearing is "anybody's guess"; Smith said there was room for "cautious optimism" that things would go the way of the detainees. 

In a further bid to draw attention to the men's plight, an activist currently on hunger strike in solidarity with the men plans to be force-fed on the steps of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Friday.

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