WASHINGTON – Human rights, veterans and civil liberties groups on Thursday will urge a federal court to order the U.S. government to release records on the alleged mistreatment of prisoners at U.S. military bases and other detention facilities overseas, including Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Peace.
The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in New York on June 2, charges that federal agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) failed to comply with two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests made in October 2003 and May 2004.
"The government has continued to stonewall our efforts to get these documents," said Amrit Singh, staff attorney at the ACLU.
"The government has continued to say it will process these in its own time but it has been over 10 months so we have been forced to go to court," she added in an interview.
When the FOIA requests were filed, the agencies involved which also included the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and State rejected a request to expedite them, arguing the requests did not involve "questions about the government’s integrity which affect public confidence" and that failing to act on an expedited request would not "endanger the life or safety of any individual."
Other records, it said, should not be released at all.
The FOIA, first filed in October 2003, asked the agencies to immediately process and release all records of the abuse or torture of detainees in U.S. custody and any records of investigations into those deaths.
A similar FOIA request was filed in May 2004, partly in response to growing public outcry against human rights violations by U.S. soldiers, resulting from the leak of prisoner abuse photos at Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad and from firsthand reports from inmates.
According to media reports, more than 30 detainees have died in U.S. custody since late 2001; at least 16 of them have been classified as homicides.
The FOIA also requested all records regarding policies that govern the interrogation of detainees in U.S. custody and the sending of detainees to other countries known to use torture, a process known as "rendition."
In addition, the groups requested records describing any measures taken by the administration to address concerns expressed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which, according to reports, repeatedly complained to U.S. authorities about the treatment of detainees under its control at multiple facilities, including Abu Ghraib, the site of an ongoing prisoner abuse investigation.
"Now, more than ever, the government must give a proper accounting for its actions," said CCR Human Rights Fellow Steven Watt in June. "If the United States is to regain any credibility in the realm of human rights, the administration must make its actions, its rules and its records completely transparent to the public."
The June filing of the lawsuit followed an explosion of media articles as well as several congressional hearings about the treatment of detainees following the leak of the photographs and videos depicting sexual and physical abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib.
Since the original leak, evidence of "systemic" mistreatment, as the ICRC put it in a February memorandum [pdf] obtained by the Wall Street Journal, has steadily accumulated regarding conditions in a number of detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay.
An August 2004 report by the CCR details the claims of three British detainees at Guantanamo Bay who were held in U.S. captivity for two and a half years.
The men claim that abuses at Guantanamo included sexual humiliation, the injection of drugs during interrogation, forcibly shaving prisoners, guards kicking the Islamic holy book, the Koran, holding prisoners in total isolation for over a year and denying medical care to prisoners who refused to cooperate with interrogators.
Military tribunal hearings began recently to determine if individual detainees at the base should be considered enemy combatants.
This first round of hearings comes after most of the remaining 500-plus detainees at the base have been held for over two years with little or no contact with the outside world and no chance to appeal their detention.
The administration of President George W. Bush has repeatedly argued is has no obligation to offer the protections of the Geneva Convention to "unlawful combatants" in its "war on terrorism," including those held at Guantanamo, but officials have also insisted they have done so as a humanitarian gesture.
"You [Bush] have stated in eloquent terms that human dignity is non-negotiable, but you have tolerated a U.S. system of interrogation that is specifically designed to degrade, humiliate and destroy the human dignity of prisoners to obtain information," the heads of nine major U.S. human rights groups, including Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, as well as PHR, said in a May 7 letter.
"[Now] there are suggestions in news reports that high-level government officials may have condoned what went on," said Singh, stressing the importance of getting government documents relevant to the abuse allegations as quickly as possible.
Government memos that appear to be designed to justify the use of torture have come to light in recent months, flaming the controversy over the abuses.
In an unprecedented action last weekend, the American Bar Association, the largest U.S. lawyers group, criticized what it called "a widespread pattern of abusive detention methods" that "feed terrorism by painting the United States as an arrogant nation above the law."
The groups that will go to court Thursday clearly believe at least some responsibility for the abuses lies with the top leadership. Their complaint notes the "growing evidence that the abuse of detainees was not aberrational but systemic, that in some cases the abuse amounted to torture and resulted in death, and that senior officials either approved of the abuse or were deliberately indifferent to it."
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