Federal judge rules Lindh commutation petition exempt from FOIA disclosure

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit [official website] on Monday held [opinion, PDF] in Associated Press v. United States Department of Justice that the petition for commuted sentence of charged Taliban supporter John Walker Lindh [CNN profile] falls under invasion-of-privacy exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) [text] and may properly be closed to the public. In January 2006, the Associated Press (AP) [advocacy website] submitted a FOIA request to the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] seeking access to Lindh's petition for commuted sentence. Lawyers for AP argued that the public interest in knowing the reasons behind his request for a shorter sentence outweighed any privacy interests he had in his records, but a judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of New York [official website] rejected the argument and granted summary judgment in favor of the DOJ. In affirming the lower court's ruling, the appeals court judges wrote:

AP has failed to demonstrate that disclosure of Lindh’s petition would serve a cognizable public purpose such that it may not be withheld under the privacy exemptions. The DOJ’s Supplemental Declaration states that none of the reasons Lindh poses to justify reduction of his twenty-year sentence "has anything to do with any alleged Government misconduct . . . and do not reveal what the 'government is up to.'" . . . AP has not asserted that the DOJ’s declarations were made in bad faith, and has further failed to show how Lindh’s petition, containing private, personal information, would in any way shed light on the DOJ’s conduct.
The judges further held that the lower court did not abuse its discretion by not conducting an in camera document review because such review is necessary only when the justification for withholding the documents is unacceptably vague.

Lindh, the American caught fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, pleaded guilty in 2002 to supplying services to the Taliban and agreed to a 20-year prison sentence under a plea agreement [text] with prosecutors. His lawyer said that the plea agreement was the best deal possible at the time, as Lindh was not charged with any of the terrorism-related activities alleged in his indictment [text]. Lindh has petitioned US President George W. Bush three times for clemency - in 2004, again in 2005, and finally in 2007 [JURIST reports] after the US government reached a more favorable plea agreement with Australian Guantanamo detainee David Hicks [JURIST news archive].


 

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