A federal appeals court has granted three Guantanamo inmates the right to challenge their prison conditions but dismissed demands for an end to force-feeding at the military jail.

In a ruling issued Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in the capital Washington found that prison authorities were entitled to "force-feed a starving inmate actually facing the risk of death."

Guantanamo Bay detainees Ahmed Belbacha, Shaker Aamer and Abu Wa'el Dhiab had argued for the practice of feeding by tubes to be declared illegal, saying it contravened international law and medical ethics.

Authorities at the US naval base in Cuba have fed hunger-striking prisoners by force on a regular basis using tubes inserted through the nose.

A total of 46 prisoners were fed using this method last year during prolonged unrest at the jail that saw up to 106 detainees refuse food.

Prison authorities no longer release statistics for hunger strikers since the number of protesters is now thought to be small.

"We have no doubt that force-feeding is a painful and invasive process that raises serious ethical concerns," the appeals court ruling said.

"It is not enough for us... This is a court of law, not an arbiter of medical ethics."

There was "nothing specific" to the case of the three plaintiffs that "would give us a basis for concluding that the government's legitimate penological interests cannot justify the force-feeding of hunger-striking detainees at Guantanamo," the judges added.

But in a two-to-one decision, the judges ruled in favor of allowing Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detention conditions as part of a habeas corpus lawsuit, and not only their incarceration without charge or trial.

"One in custody may challenge the conditions of his confinement in a petition for habeas corpus," the decision read.

"A conditions of confinement claim involves the very same inquiry: do the conditions in which the (challenger) is currently behind held violate the law?"

The ruling authorized inmates to take their case back to district court.

At an earlier stage, two lower courts had declined to rule on the issue.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]