White House Losing Ground in Bid to Keep Guantanamo Bay Abuse Secret
Federal judge rejects Obama administration request for secret trial and demands partial public release of videos showing force-feeding abuse of Guantanamo captive
Update 3:00 PM EST:
Federal Judge Gladys Kessler on Friday ordered the U.S. government to publicly release videos showing the force-feedings of Abu Wa'el Dhiab, a Syrian man held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. However, Kessler ruled that, before releasing the videos, the U.S. government may redact "identifiers of individuals in the videotapes," including "faces other thatn Mr. Dhiab's, voices, names, etc." According to Reprieve, this amounts to approximately 11 hours of redacted tape.
“This may well be the most significant court decision on Guantanamo Bay in years," said Alka Pradhan, Reprieve attorney to Mr Dhiab. "No longer does the American public have to rely on propaganda and misinformation, but can finally watch the videotapes and judge for themselves whether this terrible prison should continue to be the image America projects to the world, or whether we should reclaim our values and shut it down for good.”
A federal judge on Thursday rejected an Obama administration effort to shut the public out of the first-ever trial for abuse and torture at Guantanamo Bay, slamming the White House push for secrecy as "deeply troubling."
Judge Gladys Kessler of the Washington DC district court wrote, "With such a long-standing and ongoing public interest at stake, it would be particularly egregious to bar the public from observing the credibility of live witnesses, the substance of their testimony, whether proper procedures are being followed, and whether the court is treating all participants fairly."
Kessler criticized the Justice Department for filing a motion last Friday to hold the trial almost completely behind closed doors, arguing that the request "appears to have been deliberately made on short notice." She continued, "[O]ne of the strongest pillars of our system of justice in the United States is the presumption that all judicial proceedings are open to the public whom the judiciary serves."
The case pertains to Abu Wa'el Dhiab, a Syrian man currently who has been held at the U.S. military's offshore prison since 2002, despite being cleared for release in 2009. Dhiab, who has been on hunger strike off and on for years to protest the conditions of his confinement, is suing the Obama administration for torturous force-feeding practices, which include: forcible removal from his cell to force-feedings by a squad of soldiers donning riot gear; painful tube insertions; and use of a painful restraint chair for the process, according to a statement from Reprieve, the UK-based legal charity representing him. Dhiab's hearing is slated to take place next Monday and Tuesday in Washington, DC, and expert witnesses are to testify on the man's abuse.
The government argues that the trial must be held completely behind closed doors, except for opening statements, to protect "national security." But Dhiab's lawyers say this argument reeks of a cover-up. "The was a brazen attempt by the Obama Administration to shut the American people out of their own courtroom," said Cori Crider, Reprieve director and one of Mr. Dhiab's attorneys. "And how sad to see our Justice Department deliberately undermining one of the central pillars of our democracy: open justice."
This is not the first time the U.S. government has sought to hide information about Dhiab's case. The White House has fought to hide video recordings of the force-feedings of Dhiab and other men held captive at Guantanamo. Dhiab was the first of these prisoners to legally challenge the Obama administration on the videos, resulting in a partial win: Dhiab's lawyers from Reprieve were permitted to view the tapes, but their content remains classified, effectively gagging the tapes' viewers. Kessler has agreed with the government's argument that these videos can remain hidden from the public, which, in the words of Guardian journalist Spencer Ackerman, means "the most graphic depictions of the force-feedings will remain hidden from view."
Sixteen major media organizations filed suit in June calling for the public release of the videos on first amendment grounds. In a recent article, Dhiab's wife Umm Wa'el joined in the call for disclosure of the tapes. She wrote:
America was shocked by the images from Abu Ghraib. These films from Guantanamo threaten to do the same. The American people should be given the chance to see them, and to decide whether they accept what is being done daily to my husband. I am certain that if they are given the chance, they will see the reality: the simple desperation of an innocent man, held without charge or trial, using the only means at his disposal to get back to his wife and children.