Don’t shut courtroom door

A detainee at Guantánamo, pictured at sunrise, is suing to have forced-feeding declared torture.
A detainee at Guantánamo, pictured at sunrise, is suing to have forced-feeding declared torture. AP

Not content to impose severe restrictions on reporting at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the Obama administration now wants to bring the secretive culture of its remote island prison to the mainland by closing a federal court hearing on forced-feeding in Washington, D.C. It should not be allowed to succeed.

The administration’s propensity for secrecy, its cavalier disregard for the public’s right to see, hear and know what its government is doing, has become a habit that only gets worse with time. This mentality is particularly evident at Guantánamo, where reporters are treated as an intrusive presence, tolerated but inconvenient.

It is only thanks to a series of rulings by the Supreme Court that the detainees themselves have won the fundamental right to contest their detention. And it is only through insistent scrutiny and persistent questioning of arbitrary rules that members of the news media have been allowed to do any meaningful work.

Now the government wants to bring those practices to a federal court in the nation’s capital. Lawyers for a detainee who is on a hunger strike and challenging the prison’s coercive feeding rules, as well as lawyers for the news media, are opposing the government’s demand to close next week’s hearing to the public. Judge Gladys Kessler should listen closely to their arguments and set the bar high before allowing the government to shut the courtroom doors.

The facts of the case can be succinctly stated: Syrian captive Abu Wael Dhiab, 43, 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. Prison commanders argue the practice is humane. They contend that the alternative — allowing the detainee to die for lack of nutrition — is unacceptable.

Now doctors have examined the prisoner and are being called to testify in court. There are strong arguments to be made for both sides, but the public needs to hear the medical opinions, not have them made behind closed doors. The public has a right to hear the legal arguments supporting the detainee and why the government disagrees, using the same rules that apply whenever confidential material is presented in court.

Federal courts have previously closed habeas corpus hearings of Guantánamo’s inmates, but that’s no reason to make all hearings involving the island prison secret. In any case, Dhiab’s lawyers argue that testimony in this instance will be largely unclassified.

Even if classified issues arise, they can be dealt with under routine procedures rather than resorting to closing the courtroom. Truly secret information can be presented in the judge’s chambers, or after the public has been escorted out of the courtroom.

There is no plausible argument for closing the courtroom altogether, unless the Obama administration fears giving wider exposure to the practice of forced-feeding and the existence of a hunger strike by detainees. The administration has imposed a blackout on information involving the strike, even going so far as to stop providing the number of detainees involved after nine months of routinely releasing the information.

In doing so, the administration has missed the point. Forced-feeding is not what’s embarrassing about Guantánamo, but rather that the island prison is still open almost 13 years after it received its first arrivals. It still holds 149 captives, most of whom have not been tried and never will be. As long as the prison remains open, the embarrassments will keep piling up.