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GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Calls for the doctors who force-feed hunger striking prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to refuse to perform the practice on ethical grounds have gotten no traction, a spokesman for the prison said Thursday.
No doctors, nurses or corpsman have balked at feeding the prisoners or even voiced a concern about the military's policy of using what's known as enteral feeding to prevent any of the hunger strikers from starving to death, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand.
"They signed up to carry out lawful orders," Durand said. "This is a lawful order."
His comments came as the hunger strike at the U.S. base in Cuba neared a fourth month amid increasing pressure on the Department of Defense to reconsider its response to the protest.
Officials say 104 of the 166 prisoners were on hunger strike as of Thursday in a protest of their indefinite detention. Up to 44 are strapped down each day and force-fed liquid nutrients through a nasal tube. "We do it to preserve life," Durand said, denying the assertions from prisoners that the procedure is painful.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a letter she wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel after visiting Guantanamo in which she urged the Pentagon to reevaluate the treatment of the hunger strikers, saying "the current approach raises very important ethical questions."
The American Medical Association's president wrote Hagel in April to say that force-feeding hunger strikers violates core ethical values of the medical profession and a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine urged Guantanamo's prison doctors to refuse to participate.
A lawyer for one of the prisoners charged before a military commission in the Sept. 11 attacks sought unsuccessfully this week to raise the hunger strike as an issue during a pretrial hearing in the case.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Walter Ruiz said his client, has refused meals but is not classified as a hunger striker by prison officials. Nevertheless he sought an order from the judge to bar the use of force-feeding. Prosecutors opposed the motion as not relevant.
"The reality is that it's not the preservation of a life," Ruiz said of force-feeding. "It's the preservation of existence. There is no life. In essence, by keeping these people here we have already killed their soul, and their spirit and taken away their dignity."
The judge, Army Col. James Pohl, declined to take up the motion in a weeklong pretrial hearing in the case largely devoted to a defense challenge to rules governing attorney-client communications and other procedural matters.
Ruiz said he will continue to press the issue and may seek as part of his discovery the licensing boards and jurisdictions for the personnel who are force feeding and is considering filing ethical complaints against them.
The military had about 100 medical personnel treating the prisoners before the strike began expanding rapidly in March but has since added reinforcements, bringing the total to nearly 140.