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U.S. judge halts force-feeding of Guantanamo prisoner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge on Friday temporarily blocked the military from force-feeding a Syrian prisoner on hunger striker at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

It was the first time a judge ordered a halt to force-feeding of a prisoner in Guantanamo, where last year during a hunger strike, as many as 46 of 166 inmates were force-fed at least some of their meals. Several sued.

U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the U.S. government to stop force-feeding Abu Wa'el Dhiab until a hearing on May 21. She also ordered the military to stop extracting him from his cell if he refuses to go to feedings.

The judge said the government also must preserve all videotape evidence of forcible cell extractions and force-feeding until the hearing next Wednesday.

Human rights advocates and many doctors call force-feeding a violation of personal liberty and medical ethics. The procedure, designed to keep hunger strikers alive, involves feeding them liquid meals via tubes inserted into their noses and down into their stomachs.

"While the Department follows the law and only applies enteral feeding in order to preserve life, we will, of course, comply with the judge's order here," Defense Department spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale said in reaction to the ruling.

Last July, Kessler, based in Washington D.C., denied Dhiab's request to halt the force-feeding, saying she would be overstepping her authority if she issued an injunction and adding that only President Barack Obama had the power to intervene.

But in February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that Guantanamo prisoners have the right to sue over force-feeding and that judges have the authority to consider petitions challenging aspects of how the U.S. military treats them.

Dhiab's attorney's hailed the decision as a turning point.

"This is a major crack in Guantanamo's years-long effort to oppress prisoners and to exercise total control over information about the prison," one of Dhiab's attorneys, Cori Crider said.

"I am glad Judge Kessler has taken this seriously, and we look forward to our full day in court to expose the appalling way Dhiab and others have been treated," Crider added.

(Reporting by Sandra Maler; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and David Ingram in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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