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Gitmo Hunger-Striker Tapes Closer to Release

(CN) - Invoking the landmark publication of the Pentagon Papers, a federal judge refused today to let the government withhold footage of Guantanamo Bay prison guards force-feeding a detainee on a hunger strike.

"Transparency about the actions of our government - including the judiciary - is one of the cornerstones of our democracy," U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler wrote on Tuesday. "This court has found that the government's justifications for barring the American public from seeing the videotapes are not sufficiently rational and plausible to justify barring release of the videotapes, which are part of the court's official records, from the eyes and ears of the American public."

More than a dozen major news outlets have fought to access the videos submitted to a federal court in Washington filed by ex-detainee Abu Wa'el Dhiab.

Though finally released to Uruguay in December, Dhiab had been held without charge for 12 years, and spent half of that time cleared for release before the Pentagon found a host country willing to take him.

Dhiab's lawyers from the British legal charity Reprieve sued the Department of Defense in 2013, seeking an order preventing the soldiers guarding him from forcing him into a restraint chair and force-feeding him.

That bid largely failed, but the media attention Dhiab's case attracted set the stage for a different court battle when The New York Times, the Guardian and other publications moved to unseal videos of his feedings.

The government opposed this bid by claiming that such a release would threaten U.S. troops around the world.

A little more than a year ago, Judge Kessler rejected that argument as giving a "heckler's veto" on freedom of the press to terrorists, whom she noted "do not need a pretext for their barbarism."

Dhiab's long detention ended well before the litigation that he spawned would close.

After multiple attempts to appeal Kessler's decision failed, the government raised a motion for reconsideration back in her courtroom.

On Tuesday, Kessler would not budge from her original ruling, in a passionate, but terse, 9-page opinion.

"As Justice Stewart said in the Pentagon Papers case: 'In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may be in an enlightened citizenry - in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can ... protect the values of democratic government,'" she wrote.

Published in 1971, in a groundbreaking blow against prior restraint by the government, the Pentagon Papers catalogued the systematic lies told by President Lyndon Johnson's administration about the Vietnam War, and the judiciary's refusal to let his successor Richard Nixon's censor their publication.

Reprieve's attorney Cori Crider said the force-feeding footage will prove similarly influential.

"It's important that Americans see the abuse that goes on to this day, but also that they understand more clearly what we ask our service people to do every day," Crider said in an email. "It's brutal, it's pointless, and it is just another reason Guantanamo needs to be closed."

Though President Barack Obama has long promised to close Guantanamo Bay's prisons, Crider predicted his administration would continue to push forward a "meritless" appeal.

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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