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U.S. Told to Declassify Certain Gitmo Filings

(CN) - A federal judge ordered the government to release, with some exceptions, unclassified public versions of the materials filed in a former Guantanamo Bay detainee's case.

In a March 8 ruling that was recently unclassified, U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington, D.C., partially rejected the government's bid to shield certain records on Somali native Mohammed Sulaymon Barre, and largely granted Barre's cross-motion to compel disclosure.

"The court is troubled by the government's apparent lack of urgency in issuing public versions of classified materials filed in Guantanamo proceedings," Lamberth wrote.

"The government's arguments are unavailing and largely boil down to this: 'Declassification is complicated and time consuming and we already have a lot of work - please don't pile on.'"

Lamberth said that while he "is sympathetic to the government's position ... classified filings should be made available to the public, with appropriate redactions."

Barre was arrested and detained in 2001 while living as a refugee in Pakistan. He was interrogated about his former job at a Somali-based financial institution that purportedly sent money to and from customers in Pakistan. The Pakistani government suspected Barre had ties to Al Wafa, an Islamic foundation accused of terrorist activities.

But the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the petition challenging his detention in court, says Barre is believed to have been sold to the United States for a bounty.

Once in the custody of U.S. forces, Barre was detained at military bases in Kandahar and Bagram before being transferred to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he claims he was tortured.

He was released in 2009, leading a judge to dismiss his habeas petition as moot.

As his appeal was pending, Barre sought a court order forcing the government to publicly disclose three of his classified filings. He claimed it "would be highly misleading for the public to have available to it only the government's selective version" of the circumstances surrounding his capture and detention at Guantanamo.

The government, however, fought to keep many of the documents classified, citing national security concerns. Specifically, it asked the court to shield the location of an al-Qaida training facility, along with an unspecified word that it claimed had been mistakenly disclosed in a court filing.

Judge Lamberth said these pieces of information are not protected, because they "have been officially acknowledged and remain publicly available."

If the disclosure was inadvertent, as the government claimed, Lamberth questioned why the government "made no attempt to remove or replace" the public document with a redacted version.

Lamberth also chided the government for dragging its feet on disclosing public versions of the three classified filings simply because Barre has since been released and his petition dismissed.

"[T]his ignores the inherent public interest in Guantanamo litigation generally, and in the facts related to the release of this detainee in particular," Lamberth wrote.

"Here, petitioner's documents have remained essentially under seal for 42 months, and the court sees no reason to write the government a blank check and allow them to produce the documents at some unknown point in the future."

Lamberth gave the government 90 days - longer than the 30-day deadline sought by Barre - to produce unclassified public versions of the three court filings and the reprocessed factual return.

Allowing the government to indefinitely withhold documents would provide a "backdoor" for the government to effectively seal a case, "which is exclusively the prerogative of the court," Lamberth wrote.

The judge allowed the government to protect some documents, such as the litigation materials shown to Barre and his attorney in detention.

Barre had argued that he should be able to reveal the contents of those documents following his release in 2009 - an argument Lamberth called "rather novel" and "meritless."

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