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Attorney: Hunger-striking detainee at Guantanamo ‘shockingly thin and frail’

The lawyer representing Tariq Ba Odah, a detainee at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who began a hunger strike in 2007, said Friday that his client had lost more than half of his body weight and appears “shockingly thin and frail.”

Defense attorney Omar Farah, who saw Ba Odah this week for the first time since April, is pushing for the detainee to be released on medical grounds.

The Justice Department filed a court order last week to oppose Bah Odah’s release.

Ba Odah, a 36-year-old from Yemen, has been held at Guantanamo for 13 years. He began his hunger strike eight years ago to protest his indefinite detention without charges. He stood up to shake my hand, and he was very unsteady on his feet.  You could see veins visible all the way up his arm and bicep.

“He stood up to shake my hand, and he was very unsteady on his feet.  You could see veins visible all the way up his arm and bicep,” Farah said in a telephone interview with PBS NewsHour. “He was shockingly thin and frail. Mr. Ba Odah looks like a man who is starving.”

Ba Odah once weighed 160 pounds but now weighs 74, according to Farah.

“He seemed to have slightly more energy than when I saw him last time,” he said. “But in our meeting, his energy tailed off very, very quickly.  He remains at a very dangerously low weight.”

Farah is an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based non-profit organization that has spearheaded legal challenges against the rationale for detention as well as conditions at Guantanamo since it opened.

In 2009, the Obama administration, established an interagency review process that cleared Ba Odah and dozens of other Guantanamo detainees for release.

Today, Ba Odah remains in Guantanamo’s Camp Five, held mostly in solitary confinement, rather than at the base’s hospital, Farah said. He is usually too weak to leave his cell and is force-fed twice a day.

“The government is force-feeding Mr. Ba Odah to keep him alive in order to prolong the detention of someone who is cleared for release,” Farah said.

Force-feeding at Guantanamo involves strapping detainees to a chair, sticking a tube down their nose, and pumping a nutritional supplement like Ensure into their stomachs. Detainees and their attorneys consider the practice to be abusive.

In June, Farah filed a petition for habeas corpus in Washington, D.C. federal court seeking Ba Odah’s release on medical grounds.

On Aug. 14, the Justice Department responded by filing court papers opposing a court-ordered release, but said the administration might find another way to free Ba Odah.

In a written statement, a Justice Department spokesman said:

The U.S. government remains committed to promptly securing an appropriate location to which petitioner Ba Odah can be transferred.  Such a transfer will be consistent with applicable U.S. law and policy and occur in a manner consistent with the Administration’s commitment to reduce the detainee population at Guantánamo Bay and to ultimately close the detention facility in a responsible manner that protects national security.

Farah plans to file a formal reply in federal court.

A State Department-led effort has led to many detainees leaving Guantanamo for their home countries or other countries willing to accept them. Congress requires that the Secretary of Defense personally sign off on each removal and affirm security conditions in recipient nations are satisfactory.

Of the 780 detainees held at Guantanamo since January of 2002, there are 116 prisoners left.

A majority of the “cleared” detainees are Yemeni citizens, but the country is not considered an acceptable repatriation destination due to the ongoing civil war there as well as the country’s status as a base for al Qaeda.

“His citizenship cannot explain inaction,” Farah said. “His family desperately wants to be reunited with him.”

Privately, Pentagon official have reportedly expressed concerns that if Ba Odah were released on medical grounds, other detainees might see an incentive in starving themselves.

A surge in protesting hunger strikers in 2013 saw two-thirds of the detainees refusing meals. The Pentagon has since stopped disclosing how many detainees may be on hunger strikes.

As a potential precedent for Ba Odah’s release, Farah points to the case of Ibrahim Otham Ibrahim Idris, a 52-year-old Guantanamo detainee from Sudan sent home in December 2013 after 11 years in captivity. His attorneys argued in federal court that Idris was too physically and mentally ill to pose a threat to the U.S. A judge ordered his release after the Justice Department dropped its opposition to his petition.

The Pentagon said earlier this month it will submit a plan to Congress for closing the controversial military prison when members return from their August recess.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday the Pentagon is considering military prisons in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Charleston, South Carolina, as possible locations to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo.

“There is real frustration that there is really no way to get out of Guantanamo,” Farah said, of the detainees. “They are wondering how on earth this ends.”

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