Obama can halt ‘degrading’ force-feeding at Guantanamo, federal judge says

A federal judge on Monday condemned the military’s practice of force-feeding detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as “painful, humiliating, and degrading” and said President Obama has the authority to stop it.

In a forceful four-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler dismissed a Syrian detainee’s request to end the force-feeding, saying she lacks jurisdiction to rule on conditions of confinement at the prison. But, Kessler wrote, “there is an individual who does have the authority to address the issue.”

Kessler quoted Obama’s national security speech from May, in which he was critical of the practice and promised to restart the process of transferring detainees out of the facility. As commander in chief, she wrote, “it would seem to follow” that the president “has the authority — and power — to directly address the issue of force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.”

The opinion came in response to the detainee’s request for a preliminary injunction to halt the force-feeding, one of four such requests filed in federal court in Washington by prisoners who have been on a hunger strike since February.

The hunger strike began as a protest against searches of the detainees’ Korans, which the military said had been used to hide contraband. It since has become a broader protest of the president’s failure to close the facility.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., at a hearing for FBI director-nominee James Comey voiced her opposition to force-feeding inmates at Guantanamo Bay.

The detainee in the case, Jihad Dhiab, has been held at Guantanamo Bay for 11 years. He was cleared for resettlement in a third country in 2009, and Kessler wrote that his detention has “for all practical purposes, become indefinite.”

There are 166 detainees at Guantanamo, and 86 have been cleared by an interagency task force for transfer home or to a third country.

In his May speech, Obama pledged to restart efforts to close the facility.

The judge on Monday appeared swayed by concerns expressed by the American Medical Association, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and other organizations that have condemned force-feeding as unethical. The military has said it will do everything it can to preserve the lives of the hunger strikers.

But Kessler wrote, “It is perfectly clear from the statements of detainees, as well as the statements from the organizations just cited, that force-feeding is a painful, humiliating, and degrading process.”

There were 106 detainees on hunger strike Monday, including 45 who are being force-fed a liquid nutritional supplement through a tube that runs through the nose and into the stomach, according to a statement Monday from the military.

Dhiab’s lawyer, Jon B. Eisenberg, called Kessler’s decision “remarkable” for its harsh assessment of the practice and the president.

“A federal judge has tossed the ball in the president’s court,” Eisenberg said. “What is he going to do about it?”

When asked about the court opinion Monday, a White House spokeswoman said the president had made his views on force-feeding at Guantanamo clear in his speech this spring.

Eisenberg said he is waiting for rulings on the requests from the other three detainees before appealing Kessler’s decision.

David Nakamura contributed to this report.

Ann covers legal affairs in the District and Maryland for the Washington Post. Ann previously covered state government and politics in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. She joined the Post in 2005.
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