Guantánamo hunger strike: Force-feedings won’t clash with Ramadan, US says

US government lawyers defended the policy of force-feeding hunger-strikers at Guantánamo and said the detainees would be fed before dawn or after sunset, in accordance with Ramadan.

Bob Strong/Reuters/File
The US flag flies over Camp VI, a prison used to house detainees at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, in March.

Government lawyers on Wednesday defended the US military’s policy of force-feeding Guantánamo detainees engaged in a long-running hunger strike at the US naval base in Cuba.

They said plans to continue the force-feeding in the weeks ahead would not clash with the Islamic fast during the month of Ramadan, which is set to begin on Monday.

The government lawyers said the staff schedule at Guantánamo would be altered so that feedings would take place pre-dawn or after sunset in full accord with Ramadan tradition.

Muslims worldwide celebrate the month of Ramadan by forgoing food and water from sunup to sundown. Muslim faithful are permitted to eat and drink before dawn and after sunset.

The lawyers also denied that the government had forcibly administered an anti-nausea drug to any of four complaining detainees at Guantánamo.

The comments came in response to a request on Sunday by lawyers for four Guantánamo detainees that a federal judge in Washington block the US government from force-feeding detainees in violation of the Ramadan fast.

They also accused the US of administering the drug Reglan to their clients. They charged that prolonged use of the drug carried dangerous side-effects, including depression, thoughts of suicide, and suicide.

US District Judge Rosemary Collyer gave the government until noon Wednesday to reply to the injunction request.

Justice Department lawyers told the judge in a 20-page filing on Wednesday that the request on behalf of the detainees was an attempt to litigate issues concerning conditions of confinement and treatment of detainees at Guantánamo.

Under the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Congress chose to withdraw any jurisdiction of the federal courts to consider issues involving the detention, treatment, or conditions of confinement of an alien detained as an enemy combatant at Guantánamo. As such, the issues were beyond the court’s power to address, the lawyers said.

Nonetheless, the lawyers also defended US policies undertaken at Guantánamo in responding to the hunger strike. They said the policies are appropriate and humane.

Of the 166 detainees at Guantánamo, the government says 106 are engaged in some form of hunger strike. Forty-five have been designated for forced-feedings by Guantánamo staff.

“It is the policy of the Department of Defense to support the preservation of life and health by appropriate clinical means and standard medical intervention, in a humane manner, and in accordance with all applicable standards,” the government lawyers said.

The policy to prevent prisoners from starving themselves to death follows the same guidelines adopted by the federal Bureau of Prisons in managing hunger strikes, they said.

The US government has a “legitimate interest in providing life-saving nutritional and medical care in order to preserve the life and prevent suicidal acts of individuals in [the US government’s] care,” the government’s brief said.

The forced-feeding program is also “reasonably related to preserving order, security, and discipline within the detention facility” at Guantanamo.

“When the choice presented is to stand by and watch as Petitioners starve themselves and their health declines, or to continue providing them essential nourishment and care, there is no disputing where the balance of interests lies,” the government lawyers wrote.

They urged the judge to reject the requested injunction.

Lawyers who sought the injunction on behalf of four Guantanamo detainees disputed the government’s claims.

Cori Crider of the London-based legal group Reprieve accused the Obama administration of using “weasel words” in their response to the judge.

“They say they have ‘no plans’ to force-feed during the day in Ramadan, but give no guarantees,” she said in a statement to the media.

Jon Eisenberg, an appellate lawyer from Oakland, Calif., working on the case with Ms. Crider, criticized the administration’s request to maintain the status quo.

“The status quo is that these men are being held indefinitely without any sort of trial, even though they were cleared for release years ago,” he said. “Force-feeding to maintain that sort of ‘status quo,’ is barbaric.”

The US government’s response said none of the four detainees cited in the earlier motion to the judge had ever been administered the drug Reglan – let alone administered it over a prolonged period of time.

The government brief said that one of the four detainees, Nabil Hadjarab, was prescribed Reglan in March, but that he declined the drug and it was not administered to him.

The government filing said that all four of the complaining detainees were listed as “presently in good health” and were not currently being hospitalized.

It said that Mr. Hadjarab of Algeria was identified as a hunger striker on March 21 and that his current weight was 130, compared with his ideal body weight of 136.

Shaker Aamer of Saudi Arabia was designated as a hunger striker on March 25. He weighs 157, compared with his ideal body weight of 165 pounds, according to the US government.

Ahmed Belbacha of Algeria has been listed as a hunger striker since March 7. His current weight is 120 pounds compared with his ideal body weight of 140 pounds.

Abu Wa’el Dhiab of Syria was approved for forced-feeding on March 23 and is listed as having a body weight of 155 pounds compared with an ideal body weight of 190 pounds.

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