NEW YORK – A federal judge Thursday ordered the release of dozens more pictures of prisoners being abused at Abu Ghraib (search), rejecting government arguments that the images would provoke terrorists and incite violence against U.S. troops in Iraq.
U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein said that terrorists "do not need pretexts for their barbarism" and that suppressing the pictures would amount to submitting to blackmail.
"Our nation does not surrender to blackmail, and fear of blackmail is not a legally sufficient argument to prevent us from performing a statutory command. Indeed, the freedoms that we champion are as important to our success in Iraq and Afghanistan as the guns and missiles with which our troops are armed," he said.
Hellerstein ordered the release of 74 pictures and three videotapes from the Abu Ghraib prison, potentially opening the military up to more embarrassment from a scandal that stirred outrage around the world last year, when photos of the 2003 abuse became public.
The photographs covered by Thursday's ruling were taken by a soldier. A military policeman who saw them turned them over to the Army. Some may be duplicates of photos already seen by the public.
An appeal of Hellerstein's ruling is expected, which could delay release of the pictures for months.
Gen. John Abizaid (search), commander of U.S. Central Command, said Thursday that releasing the photos would hinder his work against terrorism.
"When we continue to pick at the wound and show the pictures over and over again it just creates the image — a false image — like this is the sort of stuff that is happening anew, and it's not," Abizaid said.
The American Civil Liberties Union (search) sought release of the photographs and videotapes as part of an October 2003 lawsuit demanding information on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody and the transfer of prisoners to countries known to use torture. The ACLU contends that prisoner abuse is systemic.
"It's a historic ruling, said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. "While no one wants to see what's on the photos or videos, they will play an essential role in holding our government leaders accountable for the torture that's happened on their watch."
The government argued that America's enemies might exploit the pictures for propaganda purposes by saying the photos represent the attitudes of all Americans toward the Iraqi people.
The judge acknowledged such a risk but said "the education and debate that such publicity will foster will strengthen our purpose, and, by enabling such deficiencies as may be perceived to be debated and corrected, show our strength as a vibrant and functioning democracy to be emulated."
Bridget F. Kelly, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, said her office was reviewing the ruling and considering its options.
Gen. Richard B. Myers (search), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had argued in court papers that releasing the photographs would aid Al Qaeda recruitment, weaken the Afghan and Iraqi governments and incite riots against American troops.
But the judge said: "My task is not to defer to our worst fears, but to interpret and apply the law, in this case, the Freedom of Information Act, which advances values important to our society, transparency and accountability in government."
The ACLU had sought the release of 87 photographs and four videotapes altogether. The judge viewed the pictures and videotapes and ordered some of them edited. Romero said those images apparently contained so many redactions that they would have been unintelligible.
The judge said the pictures were important because they were the best evidence of what happened and because they "initiate debate, not only about the improper and unlawful conduct of American soldiers, 'rogue' soldiers, as they have been characterized, but also about other important questions as well."