A federal judge has knocked down the government’s attempt to hold a secret hearing in a case challenging the military’s practice of force-feeding Guantanamo detainees who are on hunger strike.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler called the government’s desire to close the proceedings “deeply troubling,” and chastised the Department of Justice for appearing to “deliberately” make the request “on short notice.”
The case involves Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian man who has been held at Guantanamo since 2002, though he was cleared for transfer out of the island prison by the military in 2009. He began a hunger strike last year and claims that he has been subjected to painful and abusive force-feedings. He has asked the federal court to intervene and stop the military forcing him from his cell and restraining him during the feedings.
The government wanted the hearing to be largely closed to the public, on the grounds that classified videos of force-feedings and so-called “forced cell extractions” would be shown. The doctors scheduled to testify might reveal secret details of how detainees are moved from cell to feedings, the government argued.
In denying their demand, Kessler noted that it would not be difficult to briefly close the court for classified matters. “A reasonable amount of delay and logistical burdens are a small price to pay for the virtues of judicial transparency,” Kessler wrote.
The decision nodded to public interest in Dhiab’s case. The practice of force-feeding at Guantanamo came to the fore last year when over one hundred detainees went on hunger strike. Many of them alleged that force-feeding was being done in a brutal, punitive manner. The military, for its part, said that the detainees were lying to gain public sympathy. The prevailing secrecy at Guantanamo makes independent verification of conditions at the prison next to impossible.
“With such a long-standing and ongoing public interest at stake,” Kessler wrote, “it would be particularly egregious to bar the public from observing the credibility of live witnesses, the substance of their testimony, whether proper procedures are being followed, and whether the Court is treating all participants fairly.”
First Look Media, the Intercept’s parent company, was among 16 news organizations that filed a motion opposing the closed hearing this week. A separate challenge to the classification of the force-feeding videos is still ongoing.
Kessler’s full opinion is below.
Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP