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US bid for secret Gitmo force-feeding hearings challenged

Media and human rights groups said the move was a desperate attempt to keep public in the dark about Guantánamo abuses

Media organizations and rights groups are challenging an attempt by the U.S. government to exclude the public and press from hearings relating to the treatment of a Guantánamo Bay hunger striker.

In a motion filed Sept. 26, Justice Department lawyers requested that sessions relating to Abu Wa’el Dhiab — a Syrian national held at the detention camp since 2002 — be held in closed court. “An open hearing risks unauthorized disclosure of classified or protected information. The record in this case is large, with classified and protected information often inextricably intertwined with unclassified information,” the department argued. But on Tuesday, representatives of Dhiab and 16 U.S. human rights and news organizations filed a counter motion.

It argues that the government motion would bar the public from a hearing of “intense interest and great importance.” Moreover, the government request is “overbroad” and fails to “demonstrate how any anticipated testimony — classified or unclassified — will create a substantial probability of harm to national security.”

The secrecy request refers to hearings slated to begin on Oct. 6. Dhiab’s lawyers claim that their client — who has been held without charge for 12 years — has been subjected to abusive tactics to break his hunger strike. This includes forcible cell extraction and painful tube feeding, lawyers say. Also, medical records suggest that guards removed Dhiab’s wheelchair as a punitive measure.

The Defense Department has said the military feeds prisoners against their will only to keep them alive and follows all laws when it does so.

But accusations of mistreatment have been central to a lengthy legal battle over Dhiab’s 12-year imprisonment waged by the British legal rights organization Reprieve.

The detainee has been approved for resettlement in Uruguay but is refusing food in protest over both his confinement and delays in getting final approval from the U.S. government for his resettlement.

At next week’s hearings, three expert witnesses — bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles, torture specialist Dr. Sondra Crosby and psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general — are scheduled to testify. Crosby and Xenakis have examined Dhiab at Guantánamo and in previous filings described the detainee’s treatment as punitive and a violation of medical ethics, according to Dhiab’s lawyers.

Referring to the attempt by Barack Obama’s administration to move  to closed court sessions pertaining to the client, Cori Crider, a member of Dhiab's defense team, said it “smacks of desperation.”

“It’s obvious why the government wants an empty public gallery for the force-feeding trial — embarrassment," she said. “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. What is happening at Guantánamo today would appall most Americans, and Americans ought to be allowed to hear these witnesses speak.”

The Department of Justice did not return calls for comment at the time of publication. The U.S. currently holds 149 prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.

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