Defense Lawyers Move to Block Force-Feeding of Guantánamo Prisoner

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — One of the five men accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks is refusing to eat after being placed in isolation and has been told he could be force-fed, his lawyers said in a legal filing that asked a military court to intervene.

Lawyers for the man, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a 49-year-old Yemeni who had been held by the C.I.A. before being moved to Guantánamo, described the threat of force-feeding as the first of its kind in the long-running death-penalty case, and psychologically traumatizing for their client.

During the George W. Bush administration, the defendants in the Sept. 11 case were held in secret C.I.A. prisons where some detainees were tortured and, when they went on hunger strike, were subjected to a quasi-medical technique of “rectal refeeding” or “rectal hydration.”

The court filing, dated July 9, is the first sign of protest at the maximum-security prison where the former C.I.A. detainees were relocated in April from a dilapidated if more communal facility that regularly suffered power outages and sewage backups.

A spokesman for the Defense Department, Mike Howard, said on Monday that none of the 40 detainees were being fed involuntarily “at this time.” He added that “we do not use solitary confinement at Guantánamo,” reflecting a long-held position by the military that being placed alone on a cell block does not constitute solitary confinement because a detainee has the opportunity to speak with guards, lawyers, medical staff and linguists.

No date has been set for the start of the trial. Mr. bin al-Shibh and the other four men who are accused of conspiring in the attack have been in pretrial proceedings since arraignment in 2012, and Mr. bin al-Shibh recently obtained a new lead lawyer, David I. Bruck, who specializes in defending prisoners in capital cases.

To complicate matters, the case currently has no trial judge. It had been managed in a caretaker status by the former chief judge, Col. Douglas K. Watkins of the Army, who retires at the end of the month.

Mr. bin al-Shibh has long been considered the most volatile of the former C.I.A. prisoners at Guantánamo. He has been repeatedly removed from court proceedings for interrupting with complaints of vibrations shaking his cell and painful pinpricks on his skin, which he claims are part of a nearly two-decade U.S. campaign of sleep deprivation.

People with knowledge of his conditions said he continued to perceive the problem in his new cell, and would shout at night and cover the surveillance camera, prompting guards to place him in isolation around June 25.

Since then, he has refused meals “to protest his isolation,” according to a 12-page emergency filing that asks a judge at the military commissions to prohibit his forced feeding.

“Mr. bin al-Shibh does not seek to die or injure himself,” the pleading said. “He does not even seek to end his discipline. Instead, he seeks to end his isolation and return to his previous location, where his fellow detainees can be aware of what is happening to him as before.”

Mr. bin al-Shibh was “placed in a disciplinary status” because he assaulted another detainee and for “destruction of government property,” an apparent reference to damaging the surveillance camera in his prison cell, according to a Defense Department official who spoke about the case on condition of anonymity.

Defense Department officials declined to say what the current, accepted form of force-feeding is at the prison. At times, guards have shackled prisoners to a hospital bed and administered intravenous drips. More typically, the detainee is shackled into a restraint chair and medics snake a tube up a detainee’s nose and into his stomach and then pump nutrition inside.

The C.I.A. used another method, which involved shackling a prisoner to a gurney or laying him out on the floor and inserting food or liquid through a tube inserted in the prisoner’s anus. This was during the years when its captives were held at secret sites in foreign countries.

Detainees among the 780 men and boys who have been held at Guantánamo since January 2002 have periodically gone on hunger strikes to protest their conditions, and the military has never permitted one to starve himself to death.

“The medical team ensures that detainees that may be conducting self-imposed fasting are not creating damage to their long-term health,” Mr. Howard said. “Any detainee who chooses to conduct a self-imposed fast is made aware of the consequences of this decision.”

Prison staff members told Mr. bin al-Shibh on July 3 that, if he did not start eating, he could be force-fed as soon as this past weekend, according to the filing.

His lawyers asked for a court order to prevent the feeding, or for the court to “review the procedures for force-feeding to ensure they are not unnecessarily invasive or harmful.” Their filing also sought the use of a process under which qualified medical experts determine that a prisoner is in “imminent danger of death” or a serious health threat and seek court permission to force-feed him.

Mr. bin al-Shibh will eat, the lawyers wrote, if he can be near other prisoners, even in disciplinary status.

Guantánamo today has 40 detainees. The few known to refuse food are long-held general population prisoners who, commanders have said, generally drink a can of Ensure when confronted with the threat of being tackled, shackled and strapped to a restraint chair to immobilize them for feeding.

But similar treatment has not been used on the so-called high-value detainees like Mr. bin al-Shibh because they have been described as fearing the rectal refeeding techniques the C.I.A. employed. In recent years they have been allowed to eat in small groups, but their new prison apparently does not permit as many communal opportunities.

Mr. bin al-Shibh is accused of having organized some of the Sept. 11 hijackers while in Germany, where he and the other men lived before the attacks. He also reportedly aspired to be a hijacker himself by repeatedly applying for a visa to the United States, but he failed to receive one.

He was captured on Sept. 11, 2002, in Pakistan and was held by the United States, or a proxy, until his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2006. In U.S. custody he has been “subjected to numerous violations of bodily autonomy, including forced shaving and forced nudity,” his lawyers wrote. Once in military custody, he “has complained of continuous harassment designed to disrupt his daily life, sleep, functioning and relationship with counsel.”