The Obama administration, which has systematically shrouded the long-running hunger strike at Guantánamo in secrecy, has asked a federal judge to shut the public out of a hearing on one captive’s challenge of prison forced-feeding policy.
Justice Department lawyers filed the motion at the U.S. District Court in Washington on Friday. Lawyers for the detainee and news media organizations are opposing it.
Judge Gladys Kessler has yet to rule. She set the hearing for Oct. 6-7 in the case of a Syrian captive, Abu Wael Dhiab, 43, who argues that the U.S. military policy of forcing him from his cell, strapping him into a restraint chair and pumping a nutritional supplement into his stomach amounts to torture at Guantánamo. Prison commanders argue the practice is humane.
Next week’s hearing is the latest in a long-running saga at the U.S. District Court over civilian judges’ authority to intervene in the conditions of confinement at the Pentagon’s offshore prison. Dhiab, who has been held at Guantánamo since 2002, was cleared for release years ago and was at one time short-listed for resettlement in Uruguay, a now stalled deal, because he can’t go home to turbulent Syria.
He wants the judge to renew a restraining order she issued, for just a few days, halting his forced feedings.
The Justice Department proposes to adopt a Guantánamo war court model of closing the hearing. It argues that not all the testimony will involve state secrets but, because some of what witnesses say touches on classified information, the judge should close it. As a remedy, it proposes, order that the court issue a transcript of the hearing — with any classified information blacked out.
One of the proposed witnesses is Sondra Crosby, a doctor who treats victims of torture, who testified in open court at Guantánamo in April that another captive facing death-penalty proceedings was subjected to mental, physical and sexual torture.
The closure bid is part of an ongoing government effort to keep the spotlight off the forced-feedings that President Barack Obama lamented in a May 2013 speech at the National Defense University. In December, the prison of 149 captives and 2,200 staff imposed a blackout on daily hunger strike figures after nine months of transparency.
Sixteen news organizations are opposing closure in a court filing on Tuesday, said First Amendment lawyer Dave Schulz. Monday, he said the proposed closure would be “a violation of the public’s constitutional right to attend court proceedings.”
Federal courts have closed many of the habeas corpus hearings of Guantánamo detainees, and adopted the transcript formula. In this case, Dhiab’s lawyers argue that the testimony will be largely unclassified and point to the court release of statements by the proposed witness as proof of it.
“Our doctors filed public reports — their conclusions are up on the Internet for anyone to read,” said attorney Cori Crider of Reprieve, the London-based nonprofit legal defense group representing Dhiab.
Crider accused the U.S. government of trying to close the hearing not for national security reasons but for reasons of embarrassment of what goes on at Guantánamo.
“The truth is terribly embarrassing,” she said, noting that in the same court it was seeking the public release of tapes of Dhiab “being hauled from his cell by the riot squad and force-fed.”
Before the blackout, the prison made corpsmen and nurses available to the media to defend the practice as humane.
Since then, a Navy nurse turned conscientious objector and refused to conduct the feedings after several months of doing so. He was sent home early from the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba, and may be discharged from the military before retirement. He has not been identified.
The detention center also defends the practice as part of its obligation to prevent a captive from starving to death at the prison where the Pentagon holds 149 detainees, 79 of them approved for release in one fashion or another.
The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg also reports @CarolRosenberg on Twitter
Meanwhile, in another federal court decision, a judge has rejected the unlawful detention challenge of an Afghan detainee named Shawali Khan. Read the McClatchy Washington bureau report here.