Judge Claims No Jurisdiction Over Force-Feeding at Guantanamo

Yesterday, multiple news outlets reported that despite efforts by defense attorneys for Guantanamo Bay detainees, federal courts do not have the power to stop Guantanamo personnel from force-feeding the detainees.  U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler handed down a quick decision stating that federal courts simply do not have the jurisdiction or authority to order the military to stop using force-feeding tactics in response to hunger strikes implemented by detainees to protest their detention status at Gitmo.

The decision was handed down quickly in part because the court and attorneys on both sides wanted an answer before the beginning of Ramadan, the traditional Muslim holy month that requires Muslims to fast during daylight hours.  One of the main concerns was that force-feeding detainees during fasting hours would violate this core tenant of the Islamic religion.  As I noted when I first wrote about this lawsuit, in the past the military has agreed not to force-feed detainees during these hours so that detainees could observe their holy month.  In fact, in the response to the suit filed by the pentagon, the government stated that barring any emergency situations, they would agree to only force-feed detainees after sunset.  So even though we’re going to keep shoving tubes into detainees’ (that we have already admitted are not being charged with crimes) orifices while they are strapped down to chairs, we’re at least going to let them maintain the last shred of religious dignity they might have left.  Take from that what you will.

The basis for the lawsuit was not just religious.  Detainees and human rights advocates have long claimed that force-feeding is akin to torture, especially when implemented on detainees who are of sound mind and have made conscious decisions to partake in the hunger strikes.  The legal brief submitted by defense attorneys called the process “dishonorable” and “degrading.”

Although Judge Kessler admitted that the courts could not rule on the issue, she made her personal opinion known in her decision by echoing many of the above concerns, calling the force-feeding process “painful” and “degrading.”  She not-so-subtly called on the Obama administration to take action where the courts could not and shut down force-feeding itself.  Judge Kessler singled out President Obama for a speech given back on May 23rd, which some of you may recall:

“Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike.  Is that who we are?  Is that something that our founders foresaw?  Is that the America we want to leave to our children?  Our sense of justice is stronger than that.”

This coming from the same president that promised to close down Guantanamo Bay when he was first elected, and yet here we are.  I understand that it’s not that simple and that there’s a lot of politics behind the decision to keep it open.  There are a lot of politicians (and members of the public) who want to keep Guantanamo open and it’s not exactly President Obama’s unilateral decision to make.  But his administration has a chance to make a statement here and restore some level of civility to a system that’s drawn an awful lot of criticism for alleged human rights violations in recent years.  Shutting down force-feeding isn’t going to erase those incidents, but it could go a long way toward easing the tension surrounding Guantanamo Bay, at least in the short-term.  Most importantly, it would show the world that we DO respect human rights.  And as of late the world has plenty of reasons to question whether we actually do.

Sidenote – My blogging compatriots have gone into detail on what exactly the force-feeding process entails, and you can read about it here.  Seeing it in print is disturbing enough, but if you still want a better picture of the process, you’re in luck.  Over the weekend, Yasiin Bey, better known as hip-hop artist Mos Def, took the plunge and agreed to undergo the force-feeding procedure in London.  I don’t recommend clicking that link if you’re squeamish.  Keep in mind that there are 106 prisoners partaking in the hunger strikes at the moment, and 45 of them undergo this 2-hour process twice a day.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research