(Washington, DC) - President Barack Obama's decision to block the release of photos depicting the abuse of detainees in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan strikes a blow to transparency and accountability, Human Rights Watch said today.

"We understand President Obama's concern about protecting US military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the real danger comes not from the knowledge that abuse happened but the sense that those responsible for planning and authorizing it haven't been held accountable," said Stacy Sullivan, counterterrorism adviser at Human Rights Watch.

The photos, believed to number as many as 2,000, are part of detainee abuse cases the military investigated between 2001 and 2005. They reportedly depict US military personnel humiliating and otherwise mistreating detainees. A federal judge ordered them released by May 28 as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union. 

The Obama administration initially supported the release of the photos, but reversed course on Tuesday, May 12, after top US military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan told Obama they feared the release of the photos could endanger US troops. The administration now plans to appeal the judge's ruling to release the photos.

President Obama stated today that the soldiers depicted in these pictures engaging in conduct not authorized by the US Army Field Manual had been investigated and sanctioned, suggesting that the underlying problem had therefore been addressed. However, the administration appears to have ruled out taking any action against the senior military and civilian officials who authorized such conduct.

"In the Bush era, abuse was a policy dictated from the top down, but just about the only people who were punished were the privates and sergeants who had the misfortune of appearing in photographs," said Sullivan. "It would be tragic if the Obama administration accepted that outcome."

Human Rights Watch has called for prosecution of those responsible for authorizing and ordering detainee mistreatment, as well as a commission of inquiry into the full extent of post-9/11 abuses.