By: Greg Mitchell
A federal judge ruled today that graphic pictures of detainee abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison must be released over government claims that they could damage America’s image. Last year a Republican senator conceded that they contained scenes of “rape and murder” and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said they included acts that were “blatantly sadistic.”
U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein ordered the release of certain pictures in a 50-page decision that said terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven they “do not need pretexts for their barbarism.”
The ACLU has sought the release of 87 photographs and four videotapes taken at the prison as part of an October 2003 lawsuit demanding information on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody and the transfer of prisoners to countries known to use torture.
Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, said Thursday that releasing the photos would hinder his work against terrorism. “When we continue to pick at the wound and show the pictures over and over again it just creates the image–a false image–like this is the sort of stuff that is happening anew, and it’s not,” Abizaid said.
The judge said, however, that “the freedoms that we champion are as important to our success in Iraq and Afghanistan as the guns and missiles with which our troops are armed.”
An ACLU release this afternoon said it was getting 70 photos and three video tapes. It also said that the government is being given 20 days to appeal.
What is shown on the photographs and videos from Abu Ghraib prison that the Pentagon has blocked from release? One clue: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Congress last year, after viewing a large cache of unreleased images, “I mean, I looked at them last night, and they’re hard to believe.” They show acts “that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhumane,” he added.
A Republican Senator suggested the same day they contained scenes of “rape and murder.” Rumsfeld then commented, “If these are released to the public, obviously it’s going to make matters worse.”
The photos were among thousands turned over by the key “whistleblower” in the scandal, Specialist Joseph M. Darby. Just a few that were released to the press sparked the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal last year, and the video images are said to be even more shocking.
?Today’s historic ruling is a step toward ensuring that our government’s leaders are held accountable for the abuse and torture that happened on their watch,? said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. ?The American public has a right to know what happened in American detention centers, and how our leaders let it occur.”
One Pentagon lawyer has argued that they should not be released because they would only add to the humiliation of the prisoners. But the ACLU has said the faces of the victims can easily be “redacted.”
To get a sense of what may be shown in these images, one has to go back to press reports from when the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal was still front page news.
This is how CNN reported it on May 8, 2004, in a typical account that day:
“U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld revealed Friday that videos and ‘a lot more pictures’ exist of the abuse of Iraqis held at Abu Ghraib prison.
“‘If these are released to the public, obviously it’s going to make matters worse,’ Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee. ‘I mean, I looked at them last night, and they’re hard to believe.’
“The embattled defense secretary fielded sharp and skeptical questions from lawmakers as he testified about the growing prisoner abuse scandal. A military report about that abuse describes detainees being threatened, sodomized with a chemical light and forced into sexually humiliating poses.
“Charges have been brought against seven service members, and investigations into events at the prison continue.
“Military investigators have looked into — or are continuing to investigate — 35 cases of alleged abuse or deaths of prisoners in detention facilities in the Central Command theater, according to Army Secretary Les Brownlee. Two of those cases were deemed homicides, he said.
“‘The American public needs to understand we’re talking about rape and murder here. We’re not just talking about giving people a humiliating experience,’ Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters after Rumsfeld testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. ‘We’re talking about rape and murder — and some very serious charges.’
“A report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba on the abuse at the prison outside Baghdad says videotapes and photographs show naked detainees, and that groups of men were forced to masturbate while being photographed and videotaped. Taguba also found evidence of a ‘male MP guard having sex with a female detainee.’
“Rumsfeld told Congress the unrevealed photos and videos contain acts ‘that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhuman.'”
The military later screened some of the images for lawmakers, who said they showed, among other things, attack dogs snarling at cowed prisoners, Iraqi women forced to expose their breasts, and naked prisoners forced to have sex with each other.
In the same period, reporter Seymour Hersh, who helped uncover the scandal, said in a speech before an ACLU convention: “Some of the worse that happened that you don’t know about, ok? Videos, there are women there. Some of you may have read they were passing letters, communications out to their men … . The women were passing messages saying ‘Please come and kill me, because of what’s happened.’
“Basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys/children in cases that have been recorded. The boys were sodomized with the cameras rolling. The worst about all of them is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking that your government has. They are in total terror it’s going to come out.”
Judge Hellerstein said today that publication of the photographs will help to answer questions not only about the unlawful conduct of American soldiers, but about ?the command structure that failed to exercise discipline over the troops, and the persons in that command structure whose failures in exercising supervision may make them culpable along with the soldiers who were court-martialed for perpetrating the wrongs.?