by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- SLUG A coalition of civil-rights and veterans groups charged in a New York court Wednesday that the U.S. Defense Department is withholding records about the abuse of detainees in military custody as part of the Bush administration's "war against terrorism."
The federal court lawsuit accuses the Pentagon of failing to comply with a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request the groups filed in October 2003. It also named the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and State along with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
"The administration's ongoing refusal to release these records is absolutely unacceptable, particularly in light of the severity of the abuses we now know to have occurred," said Jameel Jaffer, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of the groups that filed the lawsuit.
"The public has a right to know what the government's policies were, why these abuses were allowed to take place and who was ultimately responsible," he added in a statement.
Besides the ACLU, the groups that launched the court action include the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Peace. They said it was the first lawsuit aimed at compelling the government to disclose records under the FOIA.
In their original submission the groups asked the government agencies to immediately process and release all records of the abuse or torture of detainees held at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison and other overseas detention facilities -- including the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- and records of investigations and inquiries that resulted from reports of abuse.
It also requested records of the deaths of detainees in U.S. custody and any records of investigations into those deaths. According to recent news reports, more than 30 detainees have died in U.S. custody since late 2001; at least 16 of them have been classified as homicides.
The groups also requested all records regarding policies governing the interrogation of detainees in U.S. custody and the "rendition" of detainees to other countries known to use torture.
In addition, they requested information describing any measures taken by the government to address concerns expressed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which, according to recent reports, repeatedly complained to U.S. authorities about the treatment of detainees under their control.
To date, according to the groups, the only record the government has released in response to the request is a set of talking points used by the State Department in communicating about these issues with the media.
The agencies responded to the original information request by arguing that it did not implicate "questions about the government's integrity which affect public confidence" and that failure to act on an expedited request would not "endanger the life or safety of any individual."
"Now, more than ever, the government must give a proper accounting for its actions," said CCR Human Rights Fellow Steven Watt. "If the United States is to regain any credibility in the realm of human rights, the administration must make its actions, its rules and regulations and its records completely transparent to the public."
The lawsuit follows an explosion of media articles -- as well as several congressional hearings -- about the treatment of detainees following the leak of photographs and videos depicting the sexual and physical abuse of prisoners held in Abu Ghraib.
Since the original leak, evidence of "systemic" mistreatment, as the ICRC put it in a February memorandum obtained by the 'Wall Street Journal,' has steadily accumulated covering conditions in a number of U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo.
In light of the initial disclosures, the heads of nine major U.S. human rights groups, including Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, as well as PHR, sent President George W Bush a letter recalling that they had all repeatedly asked him and senior administration officials "to act promptly and forcefully ... to assure that the treatment of detainees is consistent with international humanitarian law."
They also reminded him of their previous requests to gain "access to detention centers, release the results of all investigations, and take other steps to ensure greater transparency of the detention process."
"You have stated in eloquent terms that 'human dignity is non-negotiable, but you have tolerated a U.S. system of interrogation that is specifically designed to degrade, humiliate and destroy the human dignity of prisoners to obtain information," the groups wrote in the letter, which was sent May 7 and released publicly only last week.
They also insisted that the evidence showed that the abuse was not the work of a "few bad apples," as the administration initially claimed, but was system-wide, a point that was reportedly conceded by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who met with representatives of many of the same groups last week.
The groups that sued over their FOIA request clearly believe at least some responsibility lies with the U.S.' top leadership. The complaint notes the "growing evidence that the abuse of detainees was not aberrational but systemic, that in some cases the abuse amounted to torture and resulted in death, and that senior officials either approved of the abuse or were deliberately indifferent to it."
"A government committed to the rule of law and the prevention of torture should long ago have disclosed the rules it uses in interrogations, the practices that are prohibited and the results of investigations of violations," said Leonard Rubenstein, PHR's executive director.
PHR was the main organizer of the United Nations international guidelines for documentation of torture and its consequences.
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