MIAMI — Prisoners at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are asking a federal court to halt the force-feeding that is intended to prevent prisoners from starving to death during a hunger strike that has dragged on for more than four months.
A motion filed on behalf of four prisoners argues that the military's practice of using a nasogastric tube to involuntarily feed striking prisoners with a liquid nutrient mix is inhumane and violates medical ethics. They also say it will prevent them from observing the traditional fast during the upcoming Muslim holy period of Ramadan, depriving them of the right to practice their religion as guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions.
"Being strapped to a chair and having a tube forcibly inserted through one's nostrils and into one's stomach is dishonorable and degrading," according to the motion for a preliminary injunction. "It falls within the ambit of torture."
The prisoners say in affidavits accompanying the motion that they are aware of the risk they face if the military stops force-feeding them and they continue to protest.
"I have not decided to do this lightly," Algerian prisoner Ahmed Belbacha said. "Each day of the strike is an ordeal."
The motion was filed late Sunday with the U.S. district court in Washington by attorneys Jon B. Eisenberg, based in Oakland, California, and Cori Crider, who is with the British human rights group Reprieve. The Department of Justice has not responded but has signaled it will oppose the motion.
Military officials describe the procedure, which includes restraining the prisoners in a chair that resembles a piece of exercise equipment, as a humane response to the hunger strike since it is aimed at preventing prisoners from starving to death. "Until we are told to do differently the practice will not change," said Army Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for Miami-based Southern Command, which oversees the detention center on the U.S. base in Cuba.
In February 2006, Yemeni prisoner Muhammed Bawazir filed a challenge to force-feeding, also describing the practice as a form of torture. At the time, the Justice Department argued the procedures were humane and that the prisoner had exaggerated the level of his discomfort. A judge eventually ruled against the prisoner.
Crider said their arguments this time place less emphasis on the specifics of the procedure and more on whether it should be done at all over the men's objections. "These guys just want what any of us want. The choice to decide," she said.
The prisoners are also challenging the use of a drug known as Reglan, which is used to treat nausea and prevent vomiting. Their motion for a preliminary injunction alleges that prolonged use of the medication has the potential to cause a neurological disorder. A prison spokesman, Navy Capt. Robert Durand, said two detainees received a single dose each in the past three months and that there were no adverse side effects.
Lawyers for the prisoners say the hunger strike began in February as a protest over conditions and their indefinite confinement. The military says it started in March and that, as of Monday, there were 106 prisoners listed as hunger strikers, with as many as 44 being force-fed twice a day to prevent dangerous weight loss. There are 166 prisoners at Guantanamo.
The military has been under increasing pressure to change its response to the hunger strike. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in June that the "the current approach raises very important ethical questions." Earlier, the president of the American Medical Association also wrote Hagel to say that force-feeding hunger strikers violates core ethical values of the medical profession.