Lawyers ask judges to halt Guantánamo forced-feedings

Lawyers for four Guantánamo captives are asking a federal court in Washington, D.C., to put an end to the “grotesque” practice of force-feeding at the Pentagon prison in southeast Cuba.

The U.S. military defends the use of forced-feeding as modeled after U.S. Bureau of Prisons policy. But the lawyers argue that, unlike federal prisoners, these Guantánamo captives have never been charged with a crime and are held not for punishment but indefinitely as war-on-terror detainees.

“I am doing this because I want to know my destiny,” Algerian detainee Nabil Hadjarab, 33, says in an accompanying declaration. “I cannot abide not knowing anymore.”

As of Monday, 44 captives were designated for force-feedings at Guantánamo, said Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, a prison spokesman. The military acknowledges that 106 of the 166 captives in the prison camps are on the food protest, and said that Monday two men were getting tube-feedings in the prison hospital.

The Pentagon has about 140 Navy doctors, nurses and corpsmen are carrying out the feedings. Guards strap a captive into a restraint chair twice daily, then a medical professional snakes a nasogastric tube up the captive’s nose, down the back of his throat and into his stomach to pump a nutritional supplement inside.

“There cannot be a legitimate penological interest in force-feeding petitioners to prolong their indefinite detention,” says the 30-page filing by Oakland, Calif., attorney Jon B. Eisenberg and London-based lawyer Cori Crider of the human rights group Reprieve. “It facilitates the violation of a fundamental human right. The very notion of it is grotesque.”

The lawyers filed the motion Sunday night, seeking a speedy hearing on force-feeding policy because Islam’s holy fasting month of Ramadan starts next week. If the court can’t rule in time on the overarching policy, the pleading seeks “at a minimum, to enjoin any force-feeding between sunup and sundown during the month of Ramadan.”

The lawyers brought the action in the name of four detainees — Hadjarab, Saudi Shaker Aamer, 46, Syrian Jihad Diyab, 41, and fellow Algerian Ahmed Belbacha, 44, — whose habeas corpus petitions are before two different U.S. District Court judges, Rosemary Collyer and Gladys Kessler.

Both judges gave the government until Wednesday noon to respond.

In past Ramadans, the prison has said it tube-fed hunger strikers at night to allow protesters to observe the fast with fellow Muslims.

But in those years only a few detainees were on hunger strike. Now, Guantánamo spokesmen will not say if the U.S. military has the capacity or commitment to conduct exclusively night-time feedings.

But at the U.S. Southern Command, which supervises prison operations, Army Col. Greg Julian said there are no plans to change “the enteral feeding policy because we are following Federal Bureau of Prison approved policy — and we will not let the detainees die.

“Until we are told to do differently the practice will not change,” he said.

A likely first hurdle is whether the judges will take the case. Justice Department lawyers have successfully argued in other Guantánamo suits that civilian judges have no oversight on conditions at the U.S. Navy base’s prison camps, only on review of unlawful detention petitions.

The filing cites the positions of international medical groups that a competent captive has the right to starve himself, and also a recent letter from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel opposing the Pentagon’s forced-feeding practices.

All four captives named in the suit were cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2010. A federal task force approved each man’s transfer on condition the nations that took him in could provide security assurances. Aamer’s a former British resident whose family lives in London.

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