Videos showing force-feedings of a hunger-striking Guantanamo detainee must be publicly aired, a federal judge ordered this afternoon.
Lawyers for Syrian Abu Wa’el Dhiab, who has been held at Guantanamo since 2002 and has been refusing food for the last 18 months, have characterized the footage as “extremely disturbing.” Dhiab is asking the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. to stop the military’s practice of forcibly removing him from his cell and restraining him for feedings.
The government argues that the 28 tapes at issue are classified, and will likely appeal today’s ruling. Releasing the videos, the Justice Department has said, might give a glimpse of the the prison infrastructure, or let Guantanamo inmates or others learn how to resist “forced cell extractions” or locate equipment that could be used as a weapon. The government also warned that the videos might “inflame Muslim sensitivities overseas.”
But the judge, Gladys Kessler, found that those justifications were “unacceptably vague, speculative,” or “just plain implausible.” So much information about the force-feedings was already public, Kessler wrote, and certainly detainees “are already familiar with the tactics used to extract them from their cells and enterally feed them.” The videos may be altered to protect the identities of prison guards, she said.
“This may well be the most significant court decision on Guantanamo Bay in years,” Alka Pradhan, one of Dhiab’s attorneys, said in a statement. “No longer does the American public have to rely on propaganda and misinformation, but can finally watch the videotapes and judge for themselves.”
The government tried to have an upcoming hearing in Dhiab’s case — set for Monday — largely closed to the public, but Kessler decided yesterday that it would stay open. It’s not clear whether an appeal or the redaction of the videotapes will delay next week’s proceedings. In a statement, the Justice Department said it was considering its options.
The Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media, and 15 other news organizations petitioned the court to unseal the videos and have open hearings in Dhiab’s case.
Kessler has routinely expressed skepticism about government secrecy surrounding Guantanamo — once ordering an inmate’s release with the message “there is absolutely no reason for this court to presume that the facts contained in the government’s exhibits are accurate.” Earlier this week, she said it was “deeply troubling” that the government wanted to close the Dhiab hearing. And today, she said she was “well aware…that in no case involving Guantanamo Bay detainees has any court ordered disclosure of classified information over the Government’s opposition. However — to be clear — that does not mean that in a given factual situation no court has the discretion to do so if warranted.”
Lawyers estimate that about 16 Guantanamo detainees are on hunger strike in protest of their indefinite detention. The military stopped releasing an official count last year after a mass strike involving more than 100 prisoners. The military maintains that force-feeding is done humanely. The World Medical Association has said that the procedure is unethical and can amount to torture.
Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP