Tuesday March 28, 2006
The American Civil Liberties Union today announced that the Department of Defense has withdrawn its appeal of a district court order compelling it to turn over images depicting detainee abuse by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The Defense Department will identify which public images come from the contested trove and release any additional images in its possession.
The group's release, issued to RAW STORY, follows.
"A picture is worth a thousand words, but we have yet to hear one word of acknowledgment from Secretary Rumsfeld and other top officials that their policies and actions were responsible for the torture and abuse seen in these notorious photos," said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. "The ACLU will press on with its lawsuit to hold high-level officials accountable for creating policies that resulted in the abuse of detainees. If the American government wants to restore faith in our commitment to human rights, we must hold high-ranking officials accountable for their actions."
Today's developments mean that an earlier district court decision concerning the photographs will stand. That decision, written by Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, held that "Publication of the photographs is central to the purposes of FOIA because they initiate debate, not only about the improper and unlawful conduct of American soldiers, 'rogue' soldiers, as they have been characterized, but also about other important questions as well -- for example, the command structure whose failures in exercising supervision may make them culpable along with the soldiers who were court-martialed for perpetrating the wrongs."
At issue are 73 photographs and three videotapes depicting detainee abuse, provided by Sergeant Joseph Darby to the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, many of which were recently released on the newsmagazine Web site Salon.com. In a stipulation filed with the Court of Appeals, the government agreed to authenticate and identify images on the Salon Web site that are among the images it has withheld. Any of the 73 photographs and three videotapes that have not been published on the Salon Web site will be released to the ACLU (with individually identifying details deleted) within a week of the court's formal dismissal of the appeal.
The government has not officially informed the ACLU as to how many images in its possession have not been published on Salon.com, but they are believed to be few in number. The ACLU has not seen these images.
Attorneys for the government had argued that turning over visual evidence of abuse would violate the United States' obligations under the Geneva Conventions, but the ACLU, supported by experts in international law, said that obscuring the faces and identifiable features of the detainees would address any potential privacy concerns.
Recognizing the importance of these images for shedding light on command failures that led to the abuse, the district court agreed with the ACLU, but the government objected and appealed the decision. In the stipulation submitted to the court today, the government withdrew its objections and acknowledged that it is bound by the district court's ruling ordering the release of the images.
The ACLU said the government's strenuous efforts to resist the ACLU's lawsuit seeking release of the images may ultimately have led to many of the images being leaked -- reportedly by members of the military - to Salon and to the Australian Broadcasting System, among others.
"The government's attempts to shield evidence of its own misconduct from public scrutiny ultimately proved to be futile," said Amrit Singh, an attorney with the ACLU. "These images speak volumes about the responsibility borne by high-ranking officials for the widespread abuse of detainees held in United States custody abroad."
The photographs to be released by the Defense Department come in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Peace. The New York Civil Liberties Union is co-counsel in the case.
Additional documents continue to be turned over by the government in adherence to an expedited schedule set by Judge Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Portions of the documents are redacted and the ACLU continues to aggressively push for the release of much of the withheld information.
To date, more than 90,000 pages of government documents have been released in response to the ACLU's Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The ACLU has been posting these documents online at www.aclu.org/torturefoia. The documents reveal that harsh interrogation techniques were used indiscriminately in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantßnamo Bay, and ultimately led to cases of abuse and torture.
In March 2005, the ACLU and Human Rights First filed a lawsuit charging Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials with direct responsibility for the torture and abuse of detainees. Many of the claims in the Rumsfeld lawsuit were based on information disclosed through the ACLU's FOIA litigation. Further information about the case, Ali v. Rumsfeld, is online at www.aclu.org/rumsfeld
The stipulation relating to the Defense Department's withdrawal of its appeal is online at: www.aclu.org/safefree/torture/24786lgl20060328.html