Leading Rights Groups Call On Obama To Release Prisoner Abuse Photos

June 1, 2009 12:00 am

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ACLU Calls On Court To Adhere To Mandate Requiring Release Of Abuse Photos

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NEW YORK – Several of the nation’s leading human rights and civil liberties organizations sent a letter to President Obama today urging him to release photos depicting the abuse of detainees by U.S. personnel overseas.

The letter, signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and dozens of other groups, calls on the president to reconsider his decision to block the release of the photos. It states, “The hallmark of an open society is that we do not conceal information that reflects poorly on us – we expose it to the light of day, so that wrongdoers can be held accountable and future abuses prevented.”

“The disclosure of these photographs serves as a further reminder that abuse of prisoners in U.S.-administered detention centers was systemic,” said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU National Security Project. “Some of the abuse occurred because senior civilian and military officials created a culture of impunity in which abuse was tolerated, and some of the abuse was expressly authorized. It’s imperative that senior officials who condoned or authorized abuse now be held accountable for their actions.”

Also today, the ACLU asked a federal appeals court to uphold its earlier ruling that the government must release the photos. On May 28, the government filed a motion asking the court to recall its mandate ordering their release, and today the ACLU filed its opposition to that motion.

“The public has an undeniable right to see these photos. As disturbing as they may be, it is critical that the American people know the full truth about the abuse that occurred in their name. The government’s decision to suppress the photos is fundamentally inconsistent with President Obama’s own promise of transparency and accountability,” said Amrit Singh, staff attorney with the ACLU. “The government has failed to show any good cause for the court to recall its mandate that the photos be released, and we are confident the court will uphold its original order.”

In September 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ordered the government to turn over the photos in response to an ACLU Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. The Obama administration originally indicated that it would not appeal that decision and would release the photos, but abruptly reversed its commitment to do so shortly before the agreed-upon deadline.

In addition to Jaffer and Singh, attorneys on the case are 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.

More information about the ACLU’s FOIA lawsuit, including today’s filing, is online at: www.aclu.org/torturefoia

The full text of the letter to President Obama is below and available online at: www.aclu.org/safefree/torture/39709res20090601.html

June 1, 2009

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama:

We write to express our profound disappointment with your decision on May 13 to block the release of photographs depicting abuse of detainees by U.S. personnel overseas. We urge you to reconsider that misguided decision and to renew your commitment to our nation’s most fundamental principles.

On your first full day in office, you eloquently proclaimed your administration’s commitment to the principle of open government. You said: “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.” That is exactly right. The hallmark of an open society is that we do not conceal information that reflects poorly on us – we expose it to the light of day, so that wrongdoers can be held accountable and future abuses prevented.

These photographs will no doubt be disturbing, as they should be. And we understand your concern about reaction to them overseas. But suppressing information to prevent public anger is inconsistent with democratic principles. The Pentagon should release the photos while reaffirming to the world that the U.S. repudiates such barbaric behavior and is committed to dismantling the culture that allowed it to occur. In the end, full disclosure of the crimes committed by our government will make us all safer.

The last eight years have demonstrated all too painfully that excessive secrecy creates a fertile environment for grave abuses. Those abuses have tarnished our nation’s reputation and damaged its security. We will restore our standing as a leader on human rights not by hiding images of our failures, but by demonstrating that those failures will not go unpunished.

As you yourself have stated, “the Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.” Suppressing photographs of abuse places your administration on the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of history. We hope you will reconsider your decision.


Alliance for Justice
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
Center for Constitutional Rights
Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, NYU School of Law
Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)
CREDO Mobile
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Feminists for Free Expression
Government Accountability Project
Human Rights Watch
International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ)
Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA)
Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School
National Security Archive
OMB Watch
PEN American Center
Physicians for Human Rights
Progressive Librarians Guild (PLG)
Reporters Without Borders
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society
Veterans for Common Sense
Veterans For Peace

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