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U.S. Illegally Withheld Records On Abuses At Abu Ghraib And Elsewhere, ACLU Charges

The Department of Defense and other government agencies illegally withheld records concerning the abuse of detainees in American military custody, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights and medical and veterans’ groups charged today in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the first of its kind.

“The government’s ongoing refusal to release these records is absolutely unacceptable, particularly in light of the severity of the abuses we know to have occurred,” said Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU staff attorney. “The public has a right to know what the government’s policies were, why these abuses were allowed to take place, and who was ultimately responsible.”

The withholding of documents, the lawsuit says, violates the government’s obligation to comply with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the ACLU, CCR, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Peace.

Filed more than six months ago, the FOIA request was directed to the Departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security, and Justice, as well as the CIA. The request expressed concern – now validated by the Abu Ghraib photographs – that detainees in U.S. custody were being subjected to abuse and even torture. The FOIA request also cited reports that detainees were being turned over or “rendered” to foreign countries with poor human rights records, as a way to sidestep domestic and international laws prohibiting torture.

The Defense Department and other government agencies refused to expedite processing of the FOIA request, arguing that the request did not implicate “questions about the government’s integrity which affect public confidence” and that failure to expedite the request would not “endanger the life or safety of any individual.” Thus far, the only record that the government has released in response to the request is a set of talking points used by the State Department in communications with the media.

The complaint filed today notes that there is “growing evidence that the abuse of detainees was not aberrational but systemic, that in some cases the abuse amounted to torture and resulted in death, and that senior officials either approved of the abuse or were deliberately indifferent to it.”

In a letter sent to President Bush last month, the ACLU called the prisoner abuses at the Abu Ghraib facility in Iraq and elsewhere a “predictable result” of American detention policies that have deliberately skirted the rule of law and American values.

“Abu Ghraib wasn’t the result of a couple of lone sadists in the military – it was a direct and foreseeable consequence of detention policies that lack transparency and safeguards against this type of abuse,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero.

The lawsuit filed today seeks a court order requiring the immediate release of the records sought by the October 2003 FOIA request, which asked the government to disclose:

  • Records of the abuse or torture of detainees held at Abu Ghraib and other overseas detention facilities, and records of investigations and inquiries into that abuse.
  • Records of the deaths of detainees in United States custody and records of investigations and inquiries into those deaths.
  • Policies governing the interrogation of detainees in United States custody.
  • Policies governing the “rendition” of detainees to countries known to use torture.
  • Records describing any measures taken by the government to address concerns expressed by the Red Cross.

“A government committed to the rule of law and the prevention of torture should long ago have disclosed the rules it uses in interrogations, the practices that are prohibited, and the results of investigations of violations,” said Leonard S. Rubenstein, Executive Director of Physicians for Human Rights.

The lawsuit is being handled by Lawrence Lustberg and Jennifer Ching of the New Jersey-based law firm Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, P.C. Other attorneys in the case are Jaffer, Judy Rabinovitz, and Amrit Singh of the ACLU, and Steven Watt, Barbara Olshansky and Jeff Fogel of CCR.

The case is ACLU et al. v. Department of Defense et al., filed in the Southern District of New York.

An ACLU feature on the FOIA request, including a timeline that describes events that occurred during the time covered by its request, is online at aclu.org/torturefoia

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