An appeals court on Tuesday declined to stop force-feeding of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
But in the divided opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit also concluded that judges had the authority to review the detainees' habeas corpus petitions. That part of the 2-1 ruling by the three-judge panel rejected claims that Congress had effectively blocked judicial oversight.
In the 36-page majority opinion by Judge David Tatel, the appellate court sided with the Obama administration in declining to issue an injunction blocking the force-feeding.
Ahmed Belbacha, Abu Dhiab and Shaker Aamer are detainees who have been cleared for release from Guantanamo, but are nonetheless still held in captivity. They have engaged in a hunger strike, leading U.S. authorities to initiate force-feeding.
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In an important part of the ruling Tuesday, the appellate panel majority concluded that the Military Commissions Act did not bar habeas corpus challenges to the conditions of confinement. This prompted one judge to dissent.
"Our precedent establishes that one in custody may challenge the conditions of his confinement," Tatel wrote.
Jon B. Eisenberg, an attorney for detainees, said "this decision puts a large crack in the edifice of lawlessness that has surrounded Guantanamo Bay since 2002" and further called the decision "a good day for the rule of law in America."
Seventeen hunger-striking detainees continue to be force-fed, according to the human rights group Reprieve.
At the same time, the court also declined to block the force-feeding itself. When it occurs, the force-feeding takes place twice a day, as guards restrain the detainees in chairs and medical technicians snake tubes through their nostrils and into their stomachs so that liquid nutrients may be forced in.
"The vast majority of courts have concluded...as we do now, that absent exceptional circumstances prison officials may force-feed a starving inmate facing the risk of death." Tatel wrote, further citing the government's "legitimate penological interests."
Dissenting, Senior Judge Stephen Williams stressed that "Congress has repeatedly and forcefully sought to withdraw the federal courts' jurisdiction over Guantanamo detainees."