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America has finally released documents naming inmates held at Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba.
Following a legal challenge by Associated Press under the US freedom of information act (FOIA), a federal judge ruled that the names and nationalities, which are scattered throughout some 5,000 pages of hearing transcripts and statements, should be released and that it was illegal to keep them classified.
The documents relate to tribunals where the 500 detainees had their “combat status” assessed. Although they had previously been released, the identities had been redacted.
The US government had argued that the names of prisoners at the base should remain secret because identification would violate detainees’ privacy and endanger their families.
We and, no doubt, many people across the world were poring through the documents today. But several points have already emerged about a known British former detainee at Guantanamo.
Feroz Ali Abbasi, who was taken prisoner in Afghanistan in 2001, is recorded in the transcripts as alleging that guards forced him to pray towards the US, tried to feed him pork and had sex in front of him.
FOIA Centre commentary
The FOIA Centre is one of several parties that have been seeking details of people held by US authorities in their “war on terror”. But, on this, US government departments have opted for secrecy.
The US has a long tradition of much greater open-ness than many other places, including Britain and other European countries.
US FOIA in particular has proved a more effective tool in breaking down government secrecy than the equivalent in the UK. However, at the FOIA Centre, we have seen a change in that American approach since September 11.
Where US government departments could once have been described as positively helpful in responding to FOIA requests, now we find that they even sometimes try to ignore them.
We think that this changed approach is counter-productive. American authorities have long recog-nised – to a greater extent than, for example, their European counterparts – the importance of openness in making them accountable. They have long recognised the importance of openness for a democracy. But American authorities are wrong to think that this has changed after September 11.
A primary example has been the secret veil placed by the US government over Guantanamo Bay. The public interest – the public of the world not just of America – is best served by greater openness about what is happening at the base.
The US department of defense had argued that disclosing the identities of inmates would violate their privacy. The irony cannot be lost on anyone.
Associated Press is, therefore, to be applauded for bringing this legal challenge under FOIA over the detainees’ names. There was only one correct answer over the question as to whether they should be released. And, fortunately, the federal judge who adjudicated made the right decision – right for everyone, including the US government.
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