By Julia Edwards and David Rohde
(Reuters) - U.S. Justice Department lawyers on Friday blocked a legal request that a Guantanamo Bay detainee who weighs just 74 lbs (33.5 kg) after an eight-year hunger strike be released for health reasons.
Lawyers for the 36-year-old Yemeni detainee Tariq Ba Odah, said the decision indicated that President Barack Obama is unable to control growing divisions in his administration and achieve his goal of closing the Guantanamo detention facility before he leaves office in 2017.
Ba Odah's defense attorney, Omar Farah, said the filing, which was sealed, reflected the Obama White House's inability to develop a coherent approach to transfer Ba Odah and 51 other detainees cleared for release.
"It is a transparent attempt to hide the fact that the Obama administration’s interagency process for closing Guantanamo is an incoherent mess," said Farah, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights.
"And it is plainly intended to conceal the inconsistency between the administration’s stated intention to close Guantanamo and the steps taken to transfer cleared men," he added.
Amnesty International USA also condemned the decision.
The Yemeni detainee has been force-fed by nasal tube since he stopped eating solid food in 2007. His weight loss over the last 18 months raised fears among his lawyers that he could die of starvation. Pentagon officials said he was receiving proper care.
U.S. intelligence and military officials cleared Ba Odah for release five years ago from the Guantanamo detention center, where 116 men are imprisoned on a U.S. Navy base in Cuba 14 years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Ba Odah's case created divisions within the administration. Officials from the Defense Department, which administers the center, called for government lawyers to oppose a habeas corpus petition Ba Odah's lawyers filed in June requesting his release on health grounds.
Pentagon officials said transferring Ba Odah could create an incentive for future hunger strikes. State Department officials supported his release.
Lawyers for Ba Odah, who was captured by the Pakistani Army along the Afghan border and was accused of receiving weapons training in order to fight with the Taliban, said Obama could have instructed government lawyers not to oppose the habeas petition on Friday.
There are as many as a half dozen other habeas petitions that the government could choose not to contest.
They said Ba Odah was a test case for how the president could transfer more of the 52 detainees who have been cleared from release but remain in Guantanamo. Such releases avoid a congressionally mandated requirement that the Secretary of Defense personally sign a waiver approving each transfer.
The signed waiver requirement, and intense opposition to releases from top military commanders, has resulted in successive defense secretaries being slow to transfer detainees cleared for release.
Obama has said he is determined to close the camp, which has been condemned internationally because of the harsh treatment of detainees, but Republicans in Congress have passed laws preventing him from transferring any inmates to U.S. soil.
(Reporting by Julia Edwards and David Rohde in New York; Editing by David Storey and Lisa Shumaker)