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ACLU Calls “Historic Ruling” A Step Towards Government Accountability For Abuse And Torture Of Prisoners

A federal court in New York today ordered the Department of Defense to turn over to the American Civil Liberties Union more than 70 photographs and three videos depicting abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The release of the photos has been stayed for 20 days pending the government’s expected appeal.

“Today’s historic ruling is a step toward ensuring that our government’s leaders are held accountable for the abuse and torture that happened on their watch,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “The American public has a right to know what happened in American detention centers, and how our leaders let it occur.”

Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein today agreed, saying publication of the photographs will help to answer questions not only about the unlawful conduct of American soldiers, but about “the command structure that failed to exercise discipline over the troops, and the persons in that command structure whose failures in exercising supervision may make them culpable along with the soldiers who were court-martialed for perpetrating the wrongs.”

The images are part of a series of photographs turned over by an Abu Ghraib military policeman, Joseph Darby, to the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division. The ACLU, the New York Civil Liberties Union and its allies have been seeking the photographs and videos as part of a Freedom of Information Act request aimed at uncovering the truth about allegations of torture and abuse of detainees at U.S. controlled facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.

Today’s ruling underscored the importance of public scrutiny and debate about the torture scandal. “The fight to extend freedom has never been easy, and we are once again challenged, in Iraq and Afghanistan, by terrorists who engage in violence to intimidate our will and force us to retreat. Our struggle to prevail must be without sacrificing the transparency and accountability of government and military officials,” Judge Hellerstein said.

In response to the government’s claim that the release of the images would lead to increased violence, Judge Hellerstein noted that “the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan do not need pretexts for their barbarism; they have proven to be aggressive and pernicious in their choice of targets and tactics. Their pretexts for carrying out violence are blatant hypocrisies, clearly recognized as such except by those who would blur the clarity of their own vision.”

He added: “Our nation does not surrender to blackmail, and fear is not a legally sufficient argument to prevent us from performing a statutory command. Indeed, the freedoms that we champion are as important to our success in Iraq and Afghanistan as the guns and missiles with which our troops are armed.”

Amrit Singh, an ACLU attorney who argued the case before the court, added: “These images are of critical public interest because they shed light on the scope and severity of the abuse and on what was authorized or permitted by high-ranking U.S. officials. The government cannot continue to hide the truth about what happened and who was ultimately responsible.”

The FOIA lawsuit is being handled by Lawrence Lustberg and Megan Lewis of the New Jersey-based law firm Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, P.C. Other attorneys in the case are Singh, Jameel Jaffer, and Judy Rabinovitz of the ACLU; Arthur N. Eisenberg and Beth Haroules of the NYCLU; and Barbara Olshansky of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

To date, more than 70,000 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

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