WASHINGTON - A federal appeals court Tuesday turned away a challenge to force-feeding Guantanamo Bay detainees on a hunger strike, but left the door open to legal efforts aimed at ending the practice.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected a bid for a preliminary injunction to stop force-feeding at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. But two of the three judges ruled that the detainees did have the right to challenge the force-feeding - rejecting two district court rulings that the judiciary didn't have jurisdiction in the case.
The lawyer for the detainees, Jon B. Eisenberg, called the ruling on jurisdiction "a big win for us," because it lets the detainees go back to the district court and press the case.
"This decision establishes that the federal courts have the power to stop the mistreatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay," Eisenberg told The Associated Press. "The court of appeals has given us the green light to continue our challenge to the detainees' force-feeding as being unconstitutionally abusive. We intend to do that."
A Justice Department spokeswoman said the department was reviewing the decision.
Writing for the court, Judge David Tatel said that Congress never specifically blocked courts from hearing Guantanamo detainees' challenges to their conditions. Tatel, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, added that the circuit precedent "establishes that one in custody may challenge the conditions of his confinement in a petition for habeas corpus" - the legal principle, enshrined in the Constitution, which allows courts to determine whether a prisoner is being held illegally.
Judge Thomas Griffith, an appointee of President George W. Bush, joined Tatel, but the third judge on the panel, Stephen F. Williams, said the lower court judges properly ruled they didn't have jurisdiction.
"Congress has repeatedly and forcefully sought to withdraw the federal courts' jurisdiction over Guantanamo detainees," wrote Williams, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan.
In turning down the request for an injunction, the court ruled that the detainees didn't meet a key condition for receiving one: the likelihood of success on the merits.
"We have no doubt that force-feeding is a painful and invasive process that raises serious ethical concerns," Tatel wrote. But he said that to grant an injunction, "it is not enough for us to say that force-feeding may cause physical pain, invade bodily integrity, or even implicate petitioners' fundamental individual rights. This is a court of law, not an arbiter of medical ethics ... absent exceptional circumstances prison officials may force-feed a starving inmate actually facing the risk of death."
Tatel stressed that in reaching the conclusion for purposes of the injunction, the court was only addressing the likelihood of success, not the actual merits. He said that it was conceivable that the detainees could prove that there were "ready alternatives" to force-feeding to achieve the government's interests in preserving detainees' lives and maintaining security and discipline at the facility.
The force-feeding has proven to be a nettlesome problem for the Obama administration. When he was asked about force-feeding at a news conference last year, President Barack Obama said, "I don't want these individuals to die."