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News organizations seek ‘secret’ videos of Guantánamo force-feeding

Motion argues that public should be allowed to assess the treatment of detainees, citing First Amendment rights

More than a dozen news organizations have filed court papers calling on a federal court judge to unseal videos depicting a Guantánamo Bay detainee being forcibly removed from his cell and force-fed. 

The motion — backed by The New York Times, The Associated Press and Reuters, among others — argues that the First Amendment allows for the public to inspect the footage in a bid to assess whether inmates at the camp have been treated fairly.

Earlier this week, lawyers for Syrian national Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a longtime hunger striker whom the Obama administration cleared for release or transfer in 2009, viewed 28 of the tapes showing his forcible cell extractions (FCE) and force-feeding. Dhiab’s attorneys have run a high-profile lawsuit against the government, which attempts to stop military officials at Guantánamo from force-feeding the detainee. The case is part of a broader challenge over his 12-year imprisonment.

One of Dhiab’s lawyers, Alka Pradhan, told Al Jazeera the videos she watched at a secure facility in Virginia were so disturbing that she had trouble sleeping. 

But despite military officials marking the videos as "secret," 16 news organizations filed a 34-page motion in U.S. District Court Friday seeking to intervene in Dhiab’s case and arguing that the First Amendment trumps the government’s national security classification in this case. 

“The level of public interest in and concern with the substantial issues regarding national security and administration of justice presented by this case cannot be overstated,” says the motion. “There is significant public controversy over the government’s handling of the Guantánamo detainees involved in the long-running hunger strike — the very issue to which the videotape evidence relates and the basis for Dhiab’s motion for an injunction.” 

The media organizations said that if they do not gain access to the videotapes, then the public couldn’t “evaluate the credibility of the allegations made against the government, assess the fairness of treatment of the Guantánamo detainees …” 

“Beyond the classification level of the videotape evidence, there are many reasons to question whether any proper ground exists for denying public access to it,” the motion says. “Many studies have concluded that a great deal of information whose disclosure would be entirely harmless is nonetheless ‘classified’ by the government — indeed, it has been estimated that as much as 50% of classified information is not properly classified.”

Dhiab has said in court documents that his force-feeding is particularly brutal and he has suffered injuries as a result of Guantánamo guards forcibly removing him from his cell and inserting nasogastric tubes during his force-feeding. 

The government has said the Dhiab videos do not show anything controversial. But another of the detainee’s attorneys, Cori Crider, of the U.K.-based human rights charity Reprieve, said if that is the case, then the government “ought to put up, and produce a public version of this footage, or shut up.”

“It’s very welcome that the U.S. media is defending Americans’ right to know what is being done in their name at Guantánamo, and a scandal that the Obama administration apparently wants to keep the truth from them,” Crider said. 

“Mr. Dhiab and the rest of my clients have never received a trial — most have been cleared for release for years — yet their peaceful protest is being brutally repressed.”

Although the videos are secret, Col. John Bogdan, Guantánamo’s Joint Detention Group commander, described in a little-known sworn declaration that was unsealed last month how forced FCEs work when used prior to force-feedings and what the Dhiab tapes may show.  

“The FCE team is a small group of military members specializing in the extraction of a detainee who is combative, resistive, or possibly possesses a weapon at the time of the extraction,” Bogdan said in the declaration, submitted by the government in Dhiab’s case. “Guards are trained to use minimal force necessary for mission accomplishment and force protection.”

Bogdan said members of FCE teams receive “extensive training” on how to conduct forced cell extractions and “how to handle aggressive or non-compliant detainees.” 

“In the case of a detainee approved for enteral feeding … the guard will ask the detainee if he will come out of his cell voluntarily,” Bogdan’s declaration says. “If the detainee complies, he will walk with the guard to the enteral feeding location in the resident camp. If he refuses to exit his cell, an FCE team will be requested. Once requested and assembled, the FCE team will enter the cell. [Redacted] The FCE team then secures the detainee and moves him directly to the enteral feeding restraint chair [redacted] in the resident camp.”

Bogdan added that forced cell extraction is used not as “punishment” but “only on those who indicate or demonstrate the intent to resist, refuse to follow guard staff instructions, cause a disturbance, or endanger the lives of themselves, other detainees, or any [Joint Task Force-Guantanamo] member.”

The videos at issue in Dhiab’s case were filmed between April 2013, the height of a mass hunger strike at the prison that included more than 100 prisoners, and February 2014. A culture of secrecy at Guantánamo has long deprived journalists from learning about the internal operations of the prison and the treatment of detainees. Last year, Al Jazeera obtained a Guantánamo public affairs "smart card" that advises public-affairs officers what they can and cannot talk about with the media. On a list of topics that can be addressed are “Mission: Safe, humane, legal, transparent”; “Challenges: Splashing, spitting, biting and assaults” and “My ‘day in the life as a guard’ story.”

The card reminds its bearers to “own the interview” and “stay confident.” 

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