Irate Judge Orders Gov't to Hand Over Detainee
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
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.
"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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service