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Judge halts force-feeding of Syrian Guantánamo captive

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler on May 1, 2009 at a ceremony at the federal courthouse in Washington.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler on May 1, 2009 at a ceremony at the federal courthouse in Washington. ASSOCIATED PRESS

A federal judge waded deep into the Pentagon’s handling of the Guantánamo hunger strike on Friday, ordering the military to temporarily suspend forced-feedings of a Syrian prisoner at the detention center until a hearing Wednesday.

U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler in Washington, D.C., also ordered the military to preserve any video recordings guards might have made hauling Syrian Mohammed Abu Wa’el Dhiab, 42, from his cell and giving him nasogastric feedings in a restraint chair. He has also been identified as Jihad Dhiab in court papers and news reports.

The order appears to be the deepest intrusion into prison camp operations by the federal court during the long-running hunger strike, which at one point last year encompassed more than 100 of Guantánamo’s 154 detainees.

The military has since December refused to disclose how many detainees are force-fed as hunger strikers each day, and it was not possible to know if Navy doctors at the base considered Dhiab at risk by perhaps missing four or five days of tube feedings.

SOME EVIDENCE

Lawyers for Dhiab have gone to court to challenge forced-feedings and recently cited exchanges with government officials that suggested the military videotaped troops tackling and shackling their client with a technique called a forced cell extraction — and also recorded videos of his forced-feedings using a nasogastric technique the Navy calls “enteral feedings.”

In Washington, Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Defense Department spokesman, said: “While the department follows the law and only applies enteral feeding in order to preserve life, we will, of course, comply with the judge’s order here.”

Military spokesmen from Guantánamo and the U.S. Southern Command did not respond Friday night to questions from the Miami Herald on whether the 2,200-strong military and civilian staff at the detention center had received and would honor the order.

Lawyers for the Syrian, whom the Obama administration designated for release four years ago, hailed the ruling as “a major crack in Guantánamo’s years-long effort to oppress prisoners and to exercise total control over information about the prison.”

Attorney Cori Crider of Reprieve, a London-based legal group representing Guantánamo prisoners, noted that Dhiab has long been approved for release from the prison in Cuba, provided the U.S. finds a safe place to send him.

She said he’s been a hunger striker “because he feels he has no other option left.”

Interestingly, Uruguayan media and a U.S. official have said that Dhiab is one of six men President José Mujica has agreed to accept on release from Guantánamo through negotiations handled by the State Department.

A federal national security task force approved Dhiab’s release from Guantánamo in January 2010 “to a country outside the United States that will implement appropriate security measures.” Earlier, a Bush administration review also cleared his release.

‘DEGRADING PROCESS’

Kessler was considering the case on remand from an appeals court in February, which ruled that District Court judges have the authority to consider petitions from Guantánamo detainees challenging their conditions of confinement.

In July, before the appeals court decided District Courts do have some jurisdiction, Kessler declared herself helpless to intrude in the running of the prison camps, citing legislation by Congress.

She did however at that time call the Guantánamo forced-feedings, based on testimony, “a painful, humiliating and degrading process.” And she urged President Barack Obama to do something about it.

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