US wants Guantanamo force-feeding hearing to stay secret

US wants Guantanamo force-feeding hearing to stay secret
Attorneys for the United States government say that an upcoming court hearing concerning the force-feeding practices used on a Guantanamo Bay detainee should be held almost entirely behind closed doors.

The motion, filed by US attorneys on Friday in District Court for the District of Columbia, asks that the preliminary injunction hearing for Gitmo detainee Abu Wa’el Dhiab scheduled for early next month be conducted largely in secret over supposed national security concerns.

“As an initial matter, the hearing should be closed in order to prevent any unauthorized disclosure of classified or protected information,” the motion reads in part. “Furthermore, the hearing should be closed because, although portions of the materials in the record in this case are unclassified, conducting an open hearing in this case would impose significant burdens on the parties and the Court.”

Dhiab, a Syrian national, was cleared for release by the US in 2009 but remains in Pentagon custody at the Guantanamo Bay facility where he and dozens others engaged in a hunger strike last year to protest their continued confinement. To avoid having detainees die from malnourishment, the US has routinely subjected those individuals to force-feeding practices that their attorneys and human rights workers alike have raised concerns about.

Earlier this year in May, US District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the Obama administration to temporarily stop force-feeding Dhiab and release his medical records and 34 of 136 videotapes of force-feeding sessions taken between April 9, 2013 and February 19, 2014.

"It's 12 years late, but it's fantastic, it's the first time a federal court has started paying attention to the conditions of confinement in Guantanamo, that's a huge step," Clive Stafford Smith, the director of human rights group Reprieve said at the time.

Now as a District Court judge prepares to consider arguments from attorneys representing both the US government and Dhiab, federal attorneys are asking that the public be excluded from key elements of the hearing.

“It’s obvious what is really going on here,” Cori Crider, an attorney for Dhiab with Reprieve, said to The Guardian this week. “The government wants to seal the force-feeding trial for the same reason it is desperate to suppress the tapes of my client being hauled from his cell by the riot squad and force-fed. The truth is just too embarrassing.”

"There is no reason to close the upcoming hearing, other than the government's intense desire to hide from public scrutiny the evidence we have managed to uncover over the past few months," co-counsel Jon EIsenberg told POLITICO over the weekend. "This evidence, which consists of videotapes of Mr. Dhiab's force feedings, his medical records and some key new admissions by military officials, vividly establishes that the force feeding at Guantanamo Bay is the opposite of humane. Its overarching purpose is to cause the hunger strikers a great deal of pain and suffering, in hopes that they are convinced to give up this peaceful protest of their indefinite detention without trial."

"If, during any part of this hearing, the judge feels there is a need to protect national security information from public disclosure, she can simply close the courtroom for that part of the hearing. That's how these sorts of cases are commonly handled, and that's how this one should be handled," he said.

According to the government, however, opening and closing the hearing because of classified information being presented would “interrupt the natural flow of the hearing, preventing full, frank and uninhibited discussion of the record necessary to conduct the hearing.” As a compromise, acting assistant attorney general Joyce Branda wrote for the government on Friday that “Respondents will create a public version of the transcript of hearing on an expedited basis and, consistent with the practice in many other Guantanamo Bay merits hearings, Respondents agree the parties should begin the hearing by delivering unclassified opening statements in public.”

According to the Guardian, several news organizations, including the British paper, plan to file a motion challenging the government’s request to keep the hearing largely secret.