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In force-feeding detainees, Obama has courts on his side

WASHINGTON/MIAMI -- As detainees at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, press ahead with a widening hunger strike nearly three months old, President Barack Obama has come under increasing criticism for his policy of force-feeding them.

But U.S. law is on his side, an analysis of court rulings shows.

Most U.S. judges who have examined forced feeding in prisons have concluded that the measure may violate the rights of inmates to control their own bodies and to privacy — rights rooted in the U.S. Constitution and in common law. But they have found that the needs of operating a prison are more important.

Courts generally view a prison hunger strike as a suicide attempt, and they have ruled wardens have authority to stop suicide attempts as part of their mandate to preserve order.

“If prisoners were allowed to kill themselves, prisons would find it even more difficult than they do to maintain discipline, because of the effect of a suicide in agitating the other prisoners,” Judge Richard Posner wrote for a Chicago-based appeals court in 2006 in a case involving a Wisconsin prison that punished a disobedient inmate by refusing him food.

As of Thursday, 94 of the 166 prisoners were on a hunger strike in Guantanamo, meaning they had refused at least nine consecutive meals. According to a military count, 17 had lost enough weight to be force-fed liquid meals through a nasogastric tube, and three were in the hospital for observation.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Samuel House, a spokesman for the detention camp, said none of the detainees in the hospital had a life-threatening condition.

Striking inmates began refusing to eat around early February, alleging rough handling of the Koran during searches for contraband and protesting their prolonged imprisonment. General John Kelly, head of U.S. military forces in Latin America, said assertions about the Koran were untrue.

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