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US top court orders more review in photo abuse case

WASHINGTON, Nov 30 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday set aside a lower court’s ruling that had ordered the release of photographs showing American soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The high court’s action, which had been expected, occurred after the U.S. Congress recently approved a provision to exempt the photographs from disclosure, a measure that President Barack Obama signed into law.

The justices sent the case back to a U.S. appeals court in New York for further consideration in light of the new law and the recent certification by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that release of the photographs would endanger American soldiers.

After initially agreeing to release the photographs, Obama reversed himself in May, siding with his U.S. military advisers and said disclosure could unleash a violent backlash against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The photographs had been ordered released by a federal judge and by the appeals court as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

ACLU attorneys described the pictures as a crucial part of the historical record, visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel had been widespread during George W. Bush’s presidency and extended beyond the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The 21 photographs at issue in the case had been taken by U.S. service members and have been part of U.S. Army criminal investigations of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of photographs showed soldiers pointing pistols or rifles at the heads of hooded and handcuffed prisoners. Another one showed a soldier who appears to be striking an Iraqi detainee with the butt of a rifle, U.S. Justice Department attorneys said. (Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by David Storey) ((; 202-898-8397; Reuters Messaging: