In a victory for human and civil rights groups, a federal judge has given the government 30 days to turn over or identify all documents relating to the treatment of detainees held by the United States at military bases and other detention facilities overseas, including at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The ruling by Judge Alvin Hellerstein, which may be appealed by the government, was the latest development in a lawsuit filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and several other rights groups to compel the government to disclose records bearing on the possible abuse of detainees in U.S. military custody pursuant to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests first submitted 11 months ago.
Declaring that "no one is above the law," Hellerstein said, "merely raising national security concerns cannot justify unlimited delays" in complying with the requests. The government had requested that the judge delay the release of all documents until 2005.
"Ours is a government of laws, laws duly promulgated and laws duly observed," he said in the order issued by his office in New York City Wednesday. "No one is above the law: not the executive, not the Congress, not the judiciary."
"If the documents are more of an embarrassment than a secret, the public should know of our government’s treatment of individuals captured and held abroad," he noted, criticizing the "glacial pace" with which the George W. Bush administration had responded to the groups’ requests.
The original FOIA request, which was directed to the Pentagon and the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State, asked them to immediately process and release all records of the abuse or torture of detainees held at Abu Ghraib and other overseas detention facilities, including the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and records of investigations and inquiries that resulted from reports of abuse.
The initial FOIA request also asked for records of the deaths of detainees in U.S. custody and any records of investigations into those deaths. According to recent news reports, several dozen detainees have died in U.S. custody in Afghanistan and Iraq since late 2001; at least 16 of them have been classified as homicides.
The FOIA also requested all records regarding policies governing the interrogation of detainees in U.S. custody and the "rendition" of detainees to other countries known to use torture.
Ironically, the original request was filed at around the same time that abuses at Abu Ghraib prison were being photographed by soldiers participating in the abuse. The disclosure of those photographs and their reproduction in the world’s media in April set off a major scandal which the administration is still trying to overcome.
When the initial request was filed, however, relatively little was known about the treatment of detainees. At the time, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had privately conveyed its concerns provoked by visits to detention facilities to the administration about conditions in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
Some articles about alleged abuses, based largely on interviews with released detainees, had appeared in the U.S. press, while human rights groups, notably Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), also said that they had received reports of abuses.
Several months after the initial request, the groups, which also included the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Veterans for Common Sense, and Veterans for Peace, asked for additional records that described measures taken by the government to address concerns expressed by the ICRC.
Until April, the government agencies rejected repeated appeals by the groups to expedite processing of the requests, arguing that "the life or safety of any individual" would not be jeopardized by delay and that the requests did not raise "questions about the government’s integrity which affect public confidence." After the April disclosures, however, those arguments were severely weakened, according to the groups’ attorneys.
In June, they filed an unprecedented lawsuit aimed at compelling the government to disclose records under the FOIA. The lawsuit followed both the disclosure of the photographs depicting the sexual and physical abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison, which in turn spurred several Congressional hearings, as well as outraged editorials in the U.S. and global press.
A series of internal Pentagon investigations as well as several courts martial to date ensued, indicating that the abuse was much more widespread than initially maintained by the administration. A series of press leaks also disclosed that high-level political appointees in the Pentagon, the Justice Department, the White House and the vice president’s office had prepared memos that appeared intended to justify abuses and torture of detainees under certain circumstances.
As a result, a number of organizations, including the American Bar Association (ABA), as well as rights groups such as HRW and Human Rights First, have called for a comprehensive, independent and bipartisan investigation of detention and interrogation policies and practices on the order of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. These appeals have been ignored by the administration, which has insisted that such an effort is unnecessary in view of the steps already taken by the Pentagon to remedy the situation.
Last week, eight senior retired military officers most of whom held top legal positions in the armed services joined the call for an independent investigation, insisting that the Pentagon’s own inquiries and courts-martial were too limited in scope and could not address the issue of high-level responsibility for abuses.
The FOIA lawsuit, however, may provide yet another avenue for obtaining information about detention policies and practices.
"The court today vindicated the public’s right to know who is responsible for the systemic abuse of detainees held in United States custody," said Amrit Singh, an ACLU attorney working on the case. "The truth must be known, no matter how embarrassing it might be to the government."
(Inter Press Service)