Judge rejects Government attempt to hold Guantánamo force-feeding trial in secret

A federal judge has refused to hold the first-ever trial of prisoner abuse at Guantánamo Bay behind closed doors, issuing a sharply-worded order rejecting the Obama Administration’s request for secrecy.

Judge Kessler found the Administration’s request “deeply troubling,” noted that it “appears to have deliberately made on short notice”, and admonished the Justice Department that “one of the strongest pillars of our system of justice in the United States is the presumption that all judicial proceedings are open to the public whom the judiciary serves.”

The hearing in Dhiab v. Obama, scheduled for October 6-7 in Washington, DC, is the first time a US court will directly consider the lawfulness of prisoners’ treatment at Guantánamo Bay. Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian hunger-striker cleared for release since 2009, is challenging the legality of Guantánamo’s force-feeding practices, such as the needless movement of compliant prisoners to force-feeding by the ‘Forcible Cell Extraction Team’, a squad of soldiers in riot gear, and the use of a painful multi-point restraint chair. Three expert witness are due to testify in open court–two of them after examining Mr. Dhiab at Guantánamo–and are expected to describe the daily procedure as both punitiveand abusive.

In a motion filed last Friday, Justice Department lawyers asked to hold this trial almost entirely in closed court. Mr Dhiab, represented by the international non-profit Reprieve, was joined by a consortium of sixteen major US news organizations in opposing the motion on open justice and public interest grounds.

The consortium had previously intervened in the case seeking the release of videotapes of Mr Dhiab being hauled from his cell by the ‘Forcible Cell Extraction Team’ and force-fed. Mr Dhiab was the first Guantánamo prisoner to win disclosure of this footage. The government has insisted the evidence is all “secret” and, in an unprecedented move, have barred Mr Dhiab’s attorneys from discussing the tapes even with other security-cleared counsel. Last month, 17 leading NGOs asked Defense Secretary Charles Hagel to releasethe tapes to the public. Judge Kessler has yet to rule on the media organizations’ request to publish the tapes.

Cori Crider, Director at legal charity Reprieve and one of Mr. Dhiab’s attorneys, said: “The was a brazen attempt by the Obama Administration to shut the American people out of their own courtroom. And how sad to see our Justice Department deliberately undermining one of the central pillars of our democracy: open justice. This has been a rather poor showing from what was supposed to be the most transparent administration in history. Mercifully, sanity prevailed, and we look forward to making our case in public.”