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NEW YORK – In a letter sent to the Department of Defense today, the American Civil Liberties Union called on the Obama administration to release photographs depicting the abuse of prisoners by U.S. forces in Iraq and in Afghanistan. In September 2008, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ordered the Bush administration to release the photos as part of an ACLU lawsuit seeking information on the abuse of prisoners held in U.S. custody overseas. The outgoing administration asked the full court to rehear the case, but the court has not issued a decision on whether or not it will do so. To date, the Obama administration has not expressed a position on the litigation.
"President Obama's recent directives committing to an unprecedented level of openness and accountability warrant immediate public disclosure of these images," said ACLU attorney Amrit Singh, who argued the case in court. "The American public has the right to view these images to know what was done in its name. Release of the photos would send a powerful message that the new administration truly intends to break from the unaccountability of the Bush years."
Since the ACLU's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2003, the government has refused to disclose these images by attempting to radically expand the exemptions allowed under the FOIA for withholding records. The government claimed that the public disclosure of such evidence would generate outrage and would violate U.S. obligations towards detainees under the Geneva Conventions.
However, the appeals court panel rejected the government's attempt to use exemptions to the FOIA as "an all-purpose damper on global controversy" and recognized the "significant public interest in the disclosure of these photographs" in light of government misconduct. The court also recognized that releasing the photographs is likely to prevent "further abuse of prisoners." In its final months in office, the Bush administration petitioned the full appeals court to reconsider, but to date, no action has been taken.
"The Obama administration's commitment to transparency is commendable," said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU National Security Project. "We want to make sure that this rhetoric becomes reality."
A copy of the ACLU's letter to the Department of Defense is available at: www.aclu.org/safefree/torture/38967res20090310.html
To date, more than 100,000 pages of government documents have been released in response to the ACLU's FOIA lawsuit. They are available online at: www.aclu.org/torturefoia
Many of these documents are also compiled and analyzed in "Administration of Torture," a book by Jaffer and Singh. More information is available online at: www.aclu.org/administrationoftorture
In addition to Jaffer and Singh, attorneys on the case are Alexander Abdo and Judy Rabinovitz of the national ACLU; Arthur Eisenberg and Beth Haroules of the New York Civil Liberties Union; Lawrence S. Lustberg and Jenny-Brooke Condon of the New Jersey-based law firm Gibbons P.C.; and Shayana Kadidal and Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights.