Guantanamo Force-Feeding Trial Must Not Be Secret, Say Press and Lawyers

Sixteen major US news organizations and a hunger-striking detainee have asked a federal judge not to hold the first-ever trial of force-feeding practices at Guantánamo Bay in secret.

The hearing in Dhiab v. Obama, scheduled for October 6-7 in Washington, DC in front of Judge Gladys Kessler, will be the first ever to determine the lawfulness of force-feeding practices at Guantánamo Bay.

But in a motion filed last Friday, Justice Department lawyers asked the Court to hold the trial in closed court, with the exception of short opening statements by both sides. Briefs filed yesterday on behalf of Reprieve client, hunger-striking detainee Abu Wa’el Dhiab, and the news organizations – including the New York Times, the Washington Post, AP – oppose the government’s request. They argue that to close the court entirely would be unnecessary and would violate the public’s right of access to judicial records.

The media brief states that “the Government’s motion would bar the press and public from a hearing of intense interest and great importance,” and argues that “the importance of openness is particularly stark in proceedings, like this one, that raise questions about how governmental power is being exercised and resolve claims of abuse.” Mr. Dhiab’s brief points out that “Only now, on the eve of a hearing at which Petitioner will finally have the opportunity to present unclassified evidence of what his day-to-day treatment is really like, do Respondents insist that the public gallery should be kept entirely empty.”

Three expert witnesses – bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles, torture specialist Dr. Sondra Crosby and psychiatrist Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Dr. Stephen Xenakis – are due to testify live at the trial. Two of these experts, Dr. Crosby and Dr. Xenakis, examined Mr. Dhiab over the course of three days at Guantánamo. All three experts have filed public reports in the case; all have assessed the treatment of Mr. Dhiab to be punitive and a violation of medical ethics.

Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian man cleared for release from the prison since 2009, has been litigating a high-profile challenge to force-feeding practices at Guantánamo Bay. The news organizations had previously intervened in the case seeking the release of videotapes of Mr. Dhiab being hauled from his cell by Guantánamo’s ‘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 release the 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: “It’s obvious why the government wants an empty public gallery for the force-feeding trial: embarrassment. The government would prefer nobody was around to hear three doctors testify that force-feeding at the base is abusive and an effort to break hunger-strikers’ will. But these experts’ reports are on the public docket for anyone to read; most of their testimony will be unclassified. What is happening at Guantánamo today would appal most Americans, and Americans ought to be allowed to hear these witnesses speak.”