MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. federal court has no jurisdiction and no reason to intervene in the force-feeding of prisoners at the Guantanamo naval base, the Obama administration argued on Wednesday in its latest defense of a policy that critics have deemed unethical.
The administration also rebuffed concerns about force-feeding hunger-striking prisoners during Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown that starts on Monday. It told the court that force-feeding during Ramadan does not compromise prisoners' right to practice their religion because the feeding is done only at night.
Lawyers for four captives asked the U.S. District Court in Washington to halt the force-feeding of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, most of whom have waged a hunger strike for months to protest their indefinite detention.
When their weight drops too low, prisoners are fed liquid meals through a tube inserted into their noses and down into their stomachs, often while they are strapped into restraint chairs.
The prisoners' lawyers argued that the procedure is painful, humiliating, medically unethical and violates international law.
President Barack Obama, who recently revived his bid to end the detention operation at Guantanamo, has criticized the force-feeding but has said he does not want prisoners to die. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he could order it halted.
In a response filed on Wednesday, the Justice Department urged the court not to intervene. It said the government has well-established legal authority to force-feed hunger-striking detainees to preserve their health and lives, and that preventing their suicides is necessary to maintain order among other detainees.
"When the choice presented is to stand by and watch as petitioners starve themselves and their health declines, or to continue providing them essential nourishment and care, there is no disputing where the balance of interests lies," the Justice Department lawyers wrote.
It was unclear when U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer would rule but the prisoners' lawyers asked for a decision before Ramadan starts on Monday.
The request to halt the force-feeding was filed on behalf of Algerian captives Ahmed Belbacha and Nabil Hadjarab, Syrian prisoner Abu Wa'el Dhiab and Shaker Aamer, a Saudi prisoner with a family in London.
All four are hunger strikers, and all except Aamer have been force-fed at times since the current hunger strike began in February, though they sometimes eat food or drink liquid meals voluntarily, the Justice Department lawyers said.
All four men are in good health, are receiving adequate nutrition and have suffered no harm from the feeding policy, they said.
The feedings "have been performed in a humane fashion, with concern for petitioners' well-being, and never in a manner designed to inflict pain or discomfort, or as punishment or retaliation," the Justice Department lawyers wrote.
They said the restraint chairs were "ergonomically designed for the detainees' comfort and protection, with a padded seat and padded back support."
Cori Crider, one of the lawyers for the prisoners who sued, called the response "more weasel words from the Obama administration - they say they have 'no plans' to force-feed during the day in Ramadan, but give no guarantees."
The U.S. military holds 166 foreign captives at the Guantanamo detention camp and a spokesman said on Wednesday that 106 were hunger strikers. Forty-five were being fed at least some of the time through nasogastric tubes, he said.
Although that number is higher than in years past, the detention center has enough medical staff to feed them all at night during Ramadan, the Justice Department said.
The prisoners who sued were rounded up during counterterrorism operations but are among the 86 captives cleared for release or transfer years ago. Obama came into office in 2009 with a goal of closing down Guantanamo but has run into opposition in Congress.
Wednesday's filing noted that Congress passed a law in 2006 specifically stripping the courts of jurisdiction over the transfer of Guantanamo detainees and over the conditions of their confinement.
Reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Beech