Court OKs Guantánamo force-feeding detainees

A federal court Tuesday rejected a request by detainees at Guantánamo Bay to bar the government from force-feeding them as they participate in a hunger strike.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit did rule, though, that the detainees can challenge the conditions of their detention under the Constitution’s right of habeas corpus.

Jon B. Eisenberg, the lawyer for the detainees in the case, called the majority’s ruling “a warning shot across the bow of the Obama administration.”

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Habeas corpus traditionally allows detainees to challenge the fact that they are detained, not the conditions of that detention. But the court, with one of three judges dissenting, said there was not much difference.

“In all such cases, the habeas petitioner’s essential claim is that his custody in some way violates the law, and he may employ the writ to remedy such illegality,” the opinion states.

“This decision resolves for the first time whether federal courts can put a stop to the abuse of detainees at Guantánamo under the habeas jurisdiction,” Eisenberg told The Hill.

However, the court ultimately decided that while it has the power to stop force-feeding, it is not going to use it at the moment. 

It cited a 1987 Supreme Court ruling that if the government has “legitimate penological interests,” they outweigh inmates’ constitutional rights.

The court said the interest of the government in this case was “most obviously, the interest in preserving the inmate’s life.”

A declaration from the senior medical officer at Guantánamo Bay, cited in the case, details that hunger strikers are force-fed by being strapped in a restraint chair. Doctors or nurses then apply anesthetic and insert a tube through the inmate’s nose down to the stomach. 

U.S. military statistics compiled by the Miami Herald show that 106 detainees were participating in the hunger strike in June, but that number had dropped to 15 in December. The military then decided not to disclose the number of hunger strikers any longer.

The three inmates involved in this case, Aamer v. Obama, have all been cleared for release by the government, but have not yet been let go. 

The government can appeal the denial of a preliminary injunction in this case to the full D.C. Circuit and to the Supreme Court. If the ruling still stands, Eisenberg, the detainees’ lawyer, said they plan to file another challenge in district court under the new habeas standards. 

Eisenberg argues that one reason they have hope in a new case is that citing the need to keep the inmates alive is invalid, due to the hunger strikers being prematurely force-fed.

“I saw Shaker Aamer last week,” Eisenberg said. “He is, believe me, nowhere near death.”   

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