A federal judge Friday ordered the U.S. to release pictures of detainee abuse taken during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The Associated Press reported Saturday that U.S. district judge Alvin Hellerstein made the ruling in New York after more than a decade of litigation. The Defense Department has two months to appeal the decision before potentially making any images public.
Americans could soon witness 29 photos from seven installations in Afghanistan and Iraq if the ruling stands. Should they become visible, they will reignite a public debate about U.S. treatment of enemy combatants at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib and other locations.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed the case in 2004 over concerns the U.S. was unfairly treating detainees from the two wars. It has since said the images “are manifestly important to an ongoing national debate about governmental accountability for the abuse of prisoners.”
Defense spokesmen Lt. Col. Myles Caggins III said Friday his agency is studying Hellerstein’s judgement and will make further responses in court. The U.S. sees release of the controversial pictures as potential propaganda for terrorist groups.
Navy Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, also the vice director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said late last year the images were especially volatile after the recent rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“The danger associated with release of these photographs is heightened now,” he said in a December court filing.
Harris argued ISIS and similar organizations would attack U.S. government and military personnel over the controversial photographs.
Hellerstein has previously ruled that any images made public will feature redactions protecting the people depicted in them.
He said during a hearing last August that some images “are relatively innocuous, while others need more serious consideration.”
International outrage erupted in 2004 and again in 2006 when photos of Abu Ghraib detainees were leaked to the media. The unsettling images depicted some enemy personnel in hoods and others with guns pointed at them.
The ACLU has argued the images reveal alleged prisoner abuse by U.S. military forces.
Congress passed a 2009 law authorizing the Secretary of Defense to keep any photographs private if they endangered American lives.
Hellerstein said Friday the government had not been specific enough about potential threats so far to justify this ability.