SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - A U.S. federal judge ordered the Pentagon on Thursday to release the identities of hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to The Associated Press, a move which would force the government to break its secrecy and reveal the most comprehensive list yet of those who have been held at the U.S. navy base in Cuba.
Some of the hundreds of prisoners in the war on terror being held at Guantanamo have been imprisoned as long as four years. Only a handful have been officially identified.
U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in New York City ordered the Defence Department to release uncensored transcripts of detainee hearings, which contain the names of prisoners in custody and those who have been held and later released. Previously released documents have had identities and other details blacked out.
The judge ordered the government to hand over the documents by March 3 after the Defence Department said Wednesday it would not appeal his earlier ruling in the lawsuit filed by the AP.
On Jan. 23, Rakoff ordered the military to turn over uncensored copies of transcripts and other documents from more than 550 military hearings for detainees at the prison camp.
U.S. authorities now hold about 490 prisoners at Guantanamo on suspicion of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. Most have been held without charges since the camp opened four years ago, prompting complaints from human rights groups and others.
“AP has been fighting for this information since the fall of 2004,” said Dave Tomlin, assistant general counsel for the news organization.
“We’re grateful to have a decision at last that keeping prisoner identities secret is against the public policy and the law of this country.”
The military has never officially released the names of any prisoners, except the 10 who have been charged.
Most of those who are known emerged from the approximately 400 civil suits filed on behalf of prisoners by lawyers who obtained their names from family or other detainees, said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which represents about 200 detainees.
“They have been very resistant to releasing the names,” Ratner said.
“There are still people there who don’t have a lawyer and we don’t know who they are. They have disappeared.”
The Defence Department earlier released transcripts after the AP filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act but the names and other details of prisoners were blacked out.
The Defence Department said it would obey the judge’s order.
“The DOD will be complying with the judge’s decision in this matter,” said navy Lt.-Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.
Law experts said the case has wide-ranging implications.
“The government has tried to maintain Guantanamo as a black hole since they opened it,” said Jonathan Hafetz of the New York University School of Law.
“This is bringing it within the mainstream of the justice system and says we’re not going to have secret detentions at Guantanamo.”
In his ruling last month, Rakoff rejected government arguments releasing the prisoners’ names from 558 transcripts should be kept secret to protect their privacy and their families, friends and associates from embarrassment and retaliation.
The judge had given the government a month to decide whether to appeal and the U.S. Solicitor General decided not to pursue the case further, said Megan Gaffney, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York.
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