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Gitmo detainees on hunger strike sue over forced feeding

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A watch tower is seen in Camp X-Ray at the U.S. Naval Station on June 27, 2013, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Joe Raedle/Getty …

Four inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba are suing the federal government over the camp's force-feeding procedures, arguing they are inhumane and violate the inmates' freedom of religion.

The inmates—two of whom are currently on a monthslong hunger strike and are being force-fed—are suing in federal court in Washington, D.C., for an injunction that would stop the U.S. military from feeding inmates against their will.

Previous court rulings have held that U.S. prisoners may be force-fed to prevent them from effectively taking their own lives by starvation. But lawyers for the detainees argue that because they have not been charged with a crime, there is no "legitimate penological interest" in force-feeding them to prolong their indefinite detention. The United Nations and the World Medical Association, however, have said force-feeding is inhumane and that prisoners who are mentally fit should be allowed to refuse food. More than 40 prisoners are being force-fed now, with 106 total on hunger strike. President Barack Obama suggested in a national security speech in May that the forced feeding was unjust and that he would renew efforts to close Guantanamo.

Interestingly, the detainees' lawyers are also asking the court to reconsider whether certain religious protections extend to foreign nationals held outside the United States, given the expanded definition of personhood put forward in the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The detainees argue that they should be allowed to fast for the holy month of Ramadan, which begins July 8. The prisoners say the forced feeding will violate their ability to observe fasting for Ramadan under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Previous court rulings have suggested the act's protections do not extend to "nonresident aliens," but the detainees' attorneys argue that the courts should reconsider that precedent under the Citizens United decision, which dealt with freedom of speech and political contributions.

It's unclear whether the district court will buy the lawyers' argument that it should take the case, because the government has argued in the past that civilian judges have no jurisdiction over the prison. The court has given the government two days to respond to the filing.

Ahmed Belbacha, a 43-year-old Algerian inmate who was suspected of belonging to an al-Qaida unit in Pakistan, is one of the four who is suing. "I accept [the risk of starvation] because hunger striking is the sole peaceful means that I have to protest my indefinite detention," he says, according to the U.K. human rights group Reprieve and the California-based lawyer Jon Eisenberg, who filed the court papers on their behalf. “I realize the consequences of ending the force feeding regime. Understanding this, I ask the Court to stop the prison authorities from force feeding and forcibly medicating me."

Belbacha notes that he has been held without charge since 2002, and was cleared for release in 2007 and again in 2009.

Another detainee, Abu Wa’el (Jihad) Dhiab from Syria, described in the filing the force-feeding procedure. “Straps and shackles are put in place and only the chains on the hands are released," Dhiab said. "Then all the straps are tightened forcefully so that I cannot move or breathe. In addition to this, there are six riot force members: one holding the head and putting his fingers on the throat and neck from below the chin with severe pressure, the second and third hold the hands, the fourth and fifth hold the legs, and then the nurse inserts the tube. If you are in pain it is natural for your head to move, so they shout 'don't resist.'"

Congress has passed legislation to prevent civilian or military trials at Guantanamo. Even though 86 of the remaining 166 detainees at Gitmo have been cleared for release, many of their home countries will not accept them. All four inmates who are suing the government have been cleared for release from the camp.

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