US court upholds Gitmo detainees’ right to challenge force-feeding

While the federal appeals court declines to stop force-feeding, ruling allows detainees to move forward with their cases

A restraint chair used for force-feeding. On the tray are nutritional shakes and a tube for feeding through the nose.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that Guantanamo detainees who embark on hunger strikes have a right to challenge force-feedings, but it stopped short of issuing an injunction that would have barred the practice. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in Aamer et al. v. Obama that the U.S. District Court has jurisdiction to decide whether force-feedings are legal, rejecting two prior district court rulings to the contrary. 

The appellate court held that the detainees should be allowed a "meaningful opportunity" in district court to demonstrate that the Guantanamo force-feedings are illegal.

Lawyers for the detainees hailed the ruling as a victory. Cori Crider of the human-rights charity Reprieve told Al Jazeera, "This is the first time the D.C. Court of Appeals has said Gitmo prisoners have the right to challenge their treatment in Gitmo, and that is a big deal."

The complaint alleges that force-feedings are human-rights violations that amount to torture. While allowing the detainees to move forward on that charge, the court rejected a request for an immediate injunction, finding that it is not enough "to say that force-feeding may cause physical pain, invade bodily integrity or even implicate petitioners' fundamental individual rights."

"This is a court of law, not an arbiter of medical ethics," Judge David Tatel wrote in his opinion. "Absent exceptional circumstances, prison officials may force-feed a starving inmate actually facing the risk of death."

The law sets a high standard for obtaining an immediate junction that, among other things, requires plaintiffs to demonstrate a substantial threat of irreparable harm.

The court also rejected the claim that the procedure runs afoul of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It found that the petitioners, as nonresident aliens, did not qualify for protection under the act because they could not be deemed “persons” within the definition of the act.

An exclusive Al Jazeera report in May 2013 found that hunger-striking Guantanamo prisoners who are force-fed undergo a medical procedure that requires them to be restrained to chairs and have long tubes inserted through their nostrils. The prisoners remain this way for two hours or as long as it takes for medical personnel to confirm that nutritional supplements have reached their stomachs.

The U.N. last year called the force-feedings at Guantanamo a breach of international law. 

At last count, 17 of the prison’s 34 strikers continue to be force-fed, according to Reprieve.

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