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U.S. Ordered to Give Rights Groups Torture Papers

Gail Appleson, Reuters

NEW YORK, August 12, 2004 (Reuters) - The U.S. government has less than two weeks to start giving civil rights groups documents about the torture of prisoners held by U.S. forces at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and other facilities, a federal judge ordered on Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein expressed impatience with the government and said prosecutors must start handing over certain papers identified by the American Civil Liberties Union by Aug. 23 unless they can show the documents cannot be found or they are subject to certain exemptions.

"The court expressed a desire that this be done very quickly," said Lawrence Lustberg, a lawyer representing the civil rights groups. "He put this on a very fast track."

The ACLU and other civil rights groups sued the U.S. government in June for what they said was the illegal withholding of records about American military abuse of prisoners held in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and other locations.

The suit, filed in Manhattan federal court, charges that the U.S. Departments of Defense and other federal agencies failed to comply with a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request filed by the groups in October 2003 and May 2004. The FOIA allows citizens access to public federal records.

The plaintiffs are seeking records documenting torture and abuse which they said has occurred since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

After they filed the first FOIA request in October, they said, numerous news stories and photographs have documented mistreatment of prisoners held in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the groups received no documents, they filed a motion with the court last week seeking an order to force the government to comply with their requests.

"We've had ten months since the issuance of a FOIA demand," said Hellerstein, adding that the government had not come forward with any papers. "It's hard to believe not a single document has been identified."

Because the ACLU is seeking such a vast range of documents, the judge told the parties to work out a "rolling" production schedule in which the government can begin turning over papers on an incremental basis starting on Aug. 23.

Hellerstein's ruling follows a American Bar Association vote condemning the torture of prisoners by U.S. forces.

In its resolution, the ABA said the public has still not been adequately informed of the extent to which prisoners have been abused or given over to foreign government known to torture prisoners.

It cited public concern that the current investigations into abuse are moving too slowly and are too limited in scope.

ę Reuters 2004. All Rights Reserved.


:: Article nr. 4728 sent on 13-aug-2004 00:57 ECT


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