Months after ordering the public release of more than two dozen videos that show the force-feeding of a now freed Guantánamo Bay detainee, a federal judge on Friday directed the government to move the process forward by getting eight of the recordings ready by next month.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler in October directed the Justice Department to publicly release videotapes showing the feeding of Syrian hunger-striking prisoner Abu Wa’el Dhiab. But she said at the time that the tapes would remain sealed until some of the information on them — such as voices and faces of prison staff — could be redacted from public view.
In a five-page order Friday, she told the government to complete by Aug. 31 the redaction of eight of the 32 videos that were already ordered released. She also ordered redactions by September of separate compilation videos prepared both by the government and by Dhiab’s lawyers.
The judge said there would be no time extensions.
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Dhiab has been held at the detention site for terror suspects since August 2002. In December, the U.S. released him to resettlement in Uruguay. But he has continued to support release of the videos, which show him being forcibly removed from his cell and force-fed, treatment his lawyers have challenged as abusive.
Hunger strikes have been a common form of protest by detainees seeking to challenge their imprisonment. The U.S. military had routinely disclosed figures about participation and forced feeding. But under a blackout on release of the information since December 2013, it is not possible to know how many of the 116 captives at the prison are being force-fed on a given day. Such visuals have never emerged from the U.S. military prison in Cuba although opponents of the practice have staged purported reenactments as political theater.
Media organizations, including the Miami Herald, The New York Times and the Associated Press, had asked the judge to unseal the videos, saying the public has a significant interest in knowing how the government is treating its captives in Cuba — 52 of whom are approved for transfer, like Dihab at the time the videos were made.
“We want to get all of the tapes, and we want to get all of them as quickly as we can,” David Schulz, a lawyer for the media groups, said at a hearing Thursday.
Cori Crider, a lawyer for Dhiab, called the judge’s ruling “a great win for the U.S. press, and for the First Amendment.”
“The Obama administration has been kicking and screaming to avoid processing even one minute of this footage, and never wanted to have to give a specific reason for keeping it secret,” Crider said in a statement.
Justice Department lawyers fought the release of the videos, and in December asked a federal appeals court to overturn Kessler’s decision and to extend the delay in releasing the tapes until the appeal is resolved.
The appeals court in May ruled the appeal premature, but the parties in the case are operating under the assumption that any future ruling would be again appealed, Kessler said. And the eight videos that the government has identified for redaction are videos it believes will “present the best record for review” by the appeals court, according to the judge.
She also criticized the government Friday for what she said has been a monthslong delay in complying with her order and for filing an appeal of her decision that she said was as “frivolous” as she had ever seen.
“The only thing consistent about the government’s position has been its constant plea for more time,” she wrote, later adding, “In the months since the court ordered redaction and release of the 32 videotapes, the government has made almost no progress in completing its redactions.”
ORDER that the Government shall complete redaction of the eight videotapes it has identified and file Notice of such completion on or before August 31, 2015; the Government shall complete redaction of Petitioner's Compilation and the Government's Compilation and file Notice of such completion on or before September 30, 2015; the Parties shall take notice that there will be NO extensions of time granted; a Status Conference is hereby scheduled for October 15, 2015, at 10:00 a.m.
Signed by Judge Gladys Kessler on 7/10/15.