A federal judge on Friday ordered the U.S. government to release more than 2,000 photographs showing abuse and torture of people detained by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The decision is the latest development in a more than 10-year-long legal battle, in which the American Civil Liberties Unions has argued that disclosure of the records is critical for public debate and government accountability.
Many of the concealed photographs were taken by U.S. military service members and collected during more than 200 military investigations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some could be on par with, or worse than, those released from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
U.S. district judge Alvin Hellerstein ruled (pdf) that the government "is required to disclose each and all of the photographs" in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request from the ACLU. In the order, Hellerstein argued that the government did not adequately prove that "disclosure would endanger Americans."
The decision gives the Solicitor General two months to decide whether to appeal.
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The ACLU has pressed for the release of records relating to torture and extrajudicial killings of prisoners in U.S. custody around the world since 2003.
The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have vigorously fought to keep these photographs suppressed, and in 2009, the White House collaborated with Congress to secretly change FOIA law to enable the concealment of the images, arguing it is necessary to protect national security.
However, ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer argued in response to Friday's ruling, "To allow the government to suppress any image that might provoke someone, somewhere, to violence would be to give the government sweeping power to suppress evidence of its own agents’ misconduct. Giving the government that kind of censorial power would have implications far beyond this specific context."
"The photos are crucial to the public record," Jaffer continued. "They’re the best evidence of what took place in the military’s detention centers, and their disclosure would help the public better understand the implications of some of the Bush administration’s policies. And the Obama administration’s rationale for suppressing the photos is both illegitimate and dangerous."