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Senior lawmakers push Obama over Guantanamo force-feeding

The interior of an unoccupied communal cellblock is seen at Camp VI, a prison used to house detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo B
The interior of an unoccupied communal cellblock is seen at Camp VI, a prison used to house detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo B

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two senior Senate Democrats pushed President Barack Obama to cut back on force-feeding of prisoners at the Guantanamo naval base on Wednesday, two days after a judge ruled that only the president had the power to stop the procedure.

Senators Richard Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, and Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence committee, also urged Obama to outline a formal process for closing the detention center as quickly as possible.

"The growing problem of hunger strikes is due to the fact that many detainees have remained in legal limbo for more than a decade and have given up hope. This should be alarming to all of us," the senators said in a letter to Obama.

The letter urged Obama to direct the Department of Defense to stop conducting large-scale force feedings and, in cases when such feeding is medically necessary to save a prisoner's life, to observe protections required at facilities run by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

"It is our understanding that the U.S. federal prison guidelines for force-feedings include several safeguards and oversight mechanisms that are not in place at Guantanamo Bay," they said.

A U.S. judge on Monday denied a Guantanamo prisoner's request for an injunction to halt the force-feeding of hunger strikers, saying that only Obama had the power to intervene.

Obama came into office in 2009 with the goal of closing down the Guantanamo detention center, but has so far failed to do so.

MOST PRISONERS ON HUNGER STRIKE

The U.S. military has been holding foreign captives at the base for over a decade. There are currently 166 detainees, many of whom were cleared for release years ago.

As of Monday, 106 were hunger strikers, of whom 45 were being fed at least some of the time through nasogastric tubes while strapped to restraint chairs.

The prisoners' lawyers argue that the procedure is painful, humiliating, medically unethical and violates international law. Administration lawyers say the feedings are performed in a humane fashion and with concern for the prisoners' well-being.

They have also rebuffed concerns about force-feeding hunger strikers during Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown, which started on Monday, because the feeding is only done at night.

Obama, who recently revived his bid to end the Guantanamo detention operation, has criticized the force-feeding but said he does not want prisoners to die.

Many of Obama's fellow Democrats have been among the strongest advocates for closing the base.

Feinstein also strongly expressed her concerns and opposition to force-feeding the detainees in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel after visiting Guantanamo last month.

"Hunger strikes are a long-known form of non-violent protest aimed at bringing attention to a cause, rather than an attempt of suicide," she wrote then.

A Feinstein spokesman said there had been no response to that letter by Wednesday. There also had not been a response to the letter sent to the White House, he said.

(Editing by Xavier Briand)

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