June 5, 2006

Pentagon endorses force-feeding hunger strikers

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Pentagon document setting rules
for medical professionals in detainee operations endorses
force-feeding hunger strikers, a practice criticized by rights
activists, U.S. officials said on Monday.

The policy decree, set to be unveiled on Tuesday, is one of
three long-awaited documents on detainee operations being
formulated by the Pentagon, along with the still-pending Army
Field Manual and a directive guiding interrogation practices.

Human rights activists have said U.S. medical personnel
have been complicit in detainee abuse, and have denounced
force-feeding of prisoners as a violation of international
codes of medical ethics.

The Pentagon said in a statement the new document
"reaffirms the policy to prevent injury or loss of life of
hunger strikers by involuntarily feeding those at serious risk
of injury or death, as approved by the detention facility
commanding officer or designated senior officer."

Many foreign terrorism suspects held at the U.S. naval base
at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have engaged in hunger strikes their
lawyers call a protest of their conditions and lack of legal
rights. The military has involuntarily fed some hunger strikers
through tubes inserted through the nose and into the stomach.

Critics note that ethical codes endorsed by the American
Medical Association, including a declaration by the World
Medical Association, state that if a doctor considers a hunger
striker "capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment
concerning the consequences of such voluntary refusal of
nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially."


Authorities at Guantanamo have said they have strapped some
detainees into "restraint chairs" during involuntary feeding
and isolated them after determining some had been purposely
vomiting the liquid they had been fed. A senior general told
reporters some detainees subsequently decided taking part in
the hunger strike had become "too much of a hassle."

Writing in March in the British medical journal The Lancet,
263 doctors from seven countries called on the United States to
stop force-feeding detainees and using restraint chairs.

"It seems like the motive (for force-feeding detainees) is
to prevent embarrassment to the United States government
because they don't appear to be waiting until someone's life or
health is in significant danger," said Leonard Rubenstein,
executive director of the group Physicians for Human Rights.

Detainees' lawyers have previously accused the military of
violently shoving tubes through the men's noses and into their
stomachs without anesthesia or sedatives and then hurling
religious taunts at them when they vomited blood.

Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand, a spokesman at Guantanamo, said
this weekend the number of hunger strikers there had dropped
from 89 as of last Thursday to 18.

"The hunger strike technique is consistent with al Qaeda
practice and reflects detainee attempts to elicit media
attention to bring international pressure on the United States
to release them back to the battlefield," a military statement

The new policy directive also "reaffirms the responsibility
of health care personnel to protect and treat all detainees
under their care in keeping with the established principles of
medical practice and humane treatment," the Pentagon said.

Pentagon guidelines do not prohibit medical personnel from
assisting interrogations by using knowledge of a prisoner's
medical or mental condition.