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Federal appeals court hears arguments on release of bin Laden photos

A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] heard arguments Thursday on whether to release photos of the body of former al Qaeda [JURIST news archive] leader Osama Bin Laden [WP obituary; JURIST news archive]. The judges appeared unswayed [AP report] by arguments made by conservative government watchdog group Judicial Watch (JW) [advocacy website] which has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) [5 USC § 552] request [JURIST report] for the release of photos and videos showing bin Laden's body as well as his subsequent funeral at sea. Judicial Watch claims that arguments by the government that the photos and video might serve as terrorist propaganda were not "specific enough" basis to refuse the FOIA request. The judges seemed to indicate they were likely to affirm a lower court decision which sided with the government, refusing the request. Judge Merrick Garland challenged the claim, asking of the threats of terrorist propaganda, "why aren't those specific?" Also during the hearing Judge Judith W. Rogers suggested the impact of releasing the photos could bring "worse" consequences than the release secret American intelligence offices abroad.

Concerns about the nature of bin Laden's death and his subsequent burial at sea have arisen since the announcement of his death [JURIST report] in May 2011, while US officials have maintained that their actions were lawful. US State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh defended the killing [JURIST report] saying it was "consistent with the laws of armed conflict and US military doctrine." Days after the killing, human rights experts from the UN called on the US to disclose further details [JURIST report] of the killing, in order "to allow an assessment in terms of international human rights law standards." UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay insisted [JURIST report] on "a full disclosure of the accurate facts" surrounding the killing of Bin Laden after the White House altered the official account of the killing from its original announcement. US Attorney General Eric Holder told the US Senate Judiciary Committee that the killing of Bin Laden was lawful and justified [JURIST report], testifying that the shooting of Bin Laden was "consistent with our values," and that the soldiers who killed him "conducted themselves totally appropriately."

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