A federal judge in Washington, D.C., on Friday agreed to a U.S. news media petition and ordered the release of videotapes of U.S. troops at Guantánamo forcibly removing a Syrian captive from his cell and force-feeding him.
Before the 28 recordings can be released, censors must redact the faces, voices and names of everyone except the detainee, Syrian Abu Wa’el Dhiab, according to Judge Gladys Kessler’s order.
Dhiab, 43, arrived at Guantánamo in 2002 and was cleared for release years ago. Uruguay has agreed to resettle him, possibly later this year, because he can’t go home to turbulent Syria. He has been on a long-term, on-again, off-again hunger strike at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.
His lawyers have fought for about five months to obtain the videos, and in June more than a dozen news organizations — including the Miami Herald’s parent company, McClatchy — filed a petition with the judge in the U.S. District Court in Washington to win their release.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The prison had opposed the release of the videos, saying it risked disclosing secret procedures used inside Guantánamo’s maximum-security prison, Camp 5. Lawyers for news groups argued that potential embarrassment should not be a justification for withholding them from the public.
“It is not sufficient to say that release of the videotapes ‘poses risk to military personnel’ because enemies ‘can develop countermeasures,’ ” Kessler wrote in a 29-page decision.
Kessler was harshly critical of the justification for secrecy advanced by Navy Rear Adm. Richard Butler who this summer wrapped up a year as prison camps commander. She called his argument "unacceptably vague, speculative" and "just plain implausible."
Neither the Obama administration nor the Pentagon had immediate reactions to the order.
“We are reviewing the decision and considering our options,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas.
Dhiab’s attorney said in a statement that the videos covered about 11 hours. They included military police in riot gear and showed the Syrian “being hauled from his cell by Guantánamo’s ‘Forcible Cell Extraction’ team.”
Kessler also rejected the prison’s argument that the release of the tackle-and-shackle tapes would encourage other detainees to refuse to come out of their cells — increasing the possibility that an individual or national security might be harmed. “This justification for denying the public’s First Amendment right of access to judicial records fails to show a substantial probability of harm,” she ruled.
The Syrian had supported the media request for disclosure in a statement through his lawyers.
“I want Americans to see what is going on at the prison today,” he was quoted as saying in the statement, issued by the nonprofit London-based legal defense group Reprieve.
Disclosure, he said, would let people “understand why we are hunger-striking, and why the prison should be closed. If the American people stand for freedom, they should watch these tapes.”
Kessler, a senior judge who was appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton, got the issue through a habeas corpus petition filed by Dhiab at the court at 333 Constitution Ave., where Guantánamo detainees are authorized to file their unlawful detention suits. On Monday, she hears arguments from a retired Army psychiatrist and a torture expert in open court, another victory by news groups that had opposed a Justice Department bid to close the testimony to the public.
One of Dhiab’s attorneys hailed the decision.
“No longer does the American public have to rely on propaganda and misinformation,” said Alka Pradhan, a Washington-based Reprieve lawyer. Instead, she said, the public will be able to “finally watch the videotapes and judge for themselves whether this terrible prison should continue to be the image America projects to the world, or whether we should reclaim our values and shut it down for good.”
While the prison has allowed reporters to speak with medical staff, and military commanders have defended their policies as humane, journalists escorted through the prison compounds on media visits have neither seen the tackle-and-shackle techniques nor the so-called enteral feedings.
The order comes at a low point in prison camp hunger-strike transparency. In December, the prison reversed an eight-month policy of daily disclosures and imposed a blackout on the number of detainees receiving daily tube feedings. The military also has refused to allow prison staff to be identified publicly, even if individuals so choose.
It also comes months after Dhiab reported through his lawyer that a Navy nurse who had taken part in the forced-feedings turned conscientious objector and disappeared from the prison. Military officials confirmed a Navy nurse with the rank of lieutenant had refused to undertake the procedure. He was subsequently removed from the base and is now going before a Navy board to argue why he should be allowed to continue to serve.
Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter