Faced with an unusually harsh rebuke from a federal judge, the White House on Tuesday cautiously defended the force-feeding of Guantanamo Bay prisoners, stressing, “We don’t want these individuals to die.”
Press secretary Jay Carney’s comments came after U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler urged Obama to personally address the controversy over the hunger strike at the notorious facility. Kessler dismissed a suit from a Guantanamo detainee who argued that the government will infringe upon his religious freedom by force-feeding him during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which begins Tuesday, but called the practice “painful, humiliating and degrading" and pressed the president to act.
Asked about Kessler's comments, Carney told reporters at his daily briefing, "On the questions of litigation I would refer you to the Department of Justice and the Defense Department, which obviously runs Guantanamo Bay, I would refer you to them for specifics about the hunger strikers."
But "we don’t want these individuals to die. And, you know, the action being taken is to prevent that from happening," he underlined. Obama "understands that this is a challenging situation."
Jihad Dhiab, a Syrian detainee who was cleared for release by the Guantanamo Review Task Force in 2009 but has remained imprisoned, sued with three other detainees over the military's policy of forcibly feeding detainees who are on hunger strike and lose a certain amount of their body weight.
Dhiab claimed that the forced feeding would violate his religious freedom during the month of Ramadan, when devotees are supposed to fast until sundown each day. It is the U.S military and prisons policy not to allow prisoners to starve themselves, but the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Medical Association and other groups have said the practice is inhumane and that people should have the right to starve themselves in protest. Dhiab is one of 45 Guantanamo prisoners on a force-feed list, with a total of 106 captives on hunger strike. Only 60 of the 166 Guantanamo prisoners are not currently on hunger strike.
Carney reiterated Obama's wish to close the facility.
Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.