Jul 15, 9:22 PM EDT

US Navy nurse refuses to force-feed detainees on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay prison


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US Navy nurse refuses to force-feed detainees on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay prison

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- A U.S. Navy nurse has refused to force-feed prisoners who are on an extended hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay, the first protest of its kind at the detention center, a rights lawyer and U.S. official said Tuesday.

The unidentified nurse declined to participate after deciding the practice is a criminal act, said Cori Crider, an attorney for the British legal rights group Reprieve who spoke in a phone interview from London.

"This guy is basically a hero, and he should be permitted to give care to detainees that is ethically appropriate," Crider said.

It is the first time a nurse or doctor is known to have refused to tube-feed a prisoner, said Army Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo. He said in a phone interview that the nurse is a lieutenant and has been assigned other duties at Guantanamo.

"It's being handled administratively," he said, declining further comment.

The Guantanamo spokesman, Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Crider said she learned about the case during a phone conversation with Abu Wa'el Dhiab, a 42-year-old Syrian prisoner she represents who has never been charged and has been a candidate for release and resettlement since 2009.

She said Dhiab, who is on a hunger strike, told her in the July 10 call that he had gotten to know the nurse very well and that the nurse apparently was the leader of a medical group for roughly two to three months.

"Even before his decision, though, you could tell he was very compassionate," Crider quoted Dhiab as telling her, according to notes she shared of their conversation.

Dhiab said several other medical officers had told prisoners that they didn't like force-feeding them but had no choice, Crider said.

"But this one soldier stood up and refused to do it. This takes real courage," Crider quoted Dhiab as saying. He added, according to her: "Refusing to force-feed us was a historical act and a strong statement. We were all amazed."

The U.S. military maintains it uses humane methods to keep hunger-striking prisoners alive, but a federal judge recently ordered officials to review Dhiab's case after he complained of abusive force-feeding. Saying the manner in which Dhiab was being fed caused "unnecessary suffering," the judge issued a temporary order prohibiting the procedure, but later lifted it to protect him from starvation.

There was a push last year for doctors who force-feed hunger striking prisoners to reject the practice for ethical reasons, but it was unsuccessful, according to Guantanamo officials.

The American Medical Association's president has said that force-feeding hunger strikers violates core ethical values, and a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine urged Guantanamo's prison doctors to refuse to participate.

Hunger strikes at Guantanamo began shortly after the prison opened in 2002, with force-feeding starting in early 2006 following a mass hunger strike. A new strike began in February 2013, with more than 100 of 154 prisoners in custody participating at one point.

There are currently 149 prisoners at the detention center, and Crider has said the legal team believes roughly 34 are on hunger strike and some 18 meet the guidelines for feedings.

The U.S. military has refused to reveal the number of hunger strikers since December.

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