OCTOBER 4, 2014

For years, the US government has been relatively successful at shielding from public view much of what goes on with the scores of men detained for years without trial at Guantanamo Bay.

But in a strong rebuke to continued government secrecy, a federal judge on Friday ordered the Obama administration to unseal 28 videotapes depicting forced-feedings of Abu Wa’elDhiab, a Guantanamo detainee from Syria.  Dhiab is one of many Guantanamo detainees who, off and on over the years, have been on hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention. At its peak in the summer of 2013, 106 men were on hunger strike. The military no longer discloses the number.

Dhiab is challenging both the government’s use of forced-feedings while he is on hunger strike, as well as his ongoing detention without charge or trial—now in its 12th year.

To be sure, the forced-feeding going on at Guantanamo Bay is a gruesome practice. It involves snaking a tube down a detainee’s nose into his stomach while he is tied down in a restraint chair as cans of Ensure nutritional supplement are funneled into his stomach. Human Rights Watch, and numerous other human rights and medical ethics organizations, consider forced-feeding of hunger-striking detainees sufficiently competent to refuse medical treatment, to be cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

The government rejects this view, contending they need to use forced-feedings to save the lives of detainees. The detaineesassert the feedings are being done prematurely, before they are necessary to save their lives and that they are being done in an excessively violent fashion. They also claim it is aimed at punishing the detainees and deterring them from using the most effective means of protest they have at their disposal.

The ruling today did not address the merits of those arguments, but it was no less important, as it addressed a key problem at Guantanamo: secrecy. The government opposed Dhiab’s request for disclosure of the tapes of his forced feedings, contending that they could be used to fuel anti-American sentiment. DC District Court Judge Gladys Kessler disagreed, calling the government’s argument “speculative” and noting that the free speech rights afforded by the First Amendment cannot be defeated simply because they “might offend a hostile mob.”

That outcome is an important recognition of basic rights, even for Guantanamo detainees. Regardless of one’s view of the hunger strikers, the videotapes should never have been shielded from public view. Americans should be able to decide for themselves whether they agree or disagree with Defense Department practice. The decision today is a victory for those who oppose the unlawful indefinite detention without trial of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. But it’s also a victory for freedom of expression and the right to seek, receive and impart information, and the public’s ability to hold the US government to account for its actions.