U.S. News

U.S. court rules rights groups may protect sources

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. court has ordered that Amnesty International and other human rights groups can assert the same privileges that journalists use, allowing them to better protect anonymous sources.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Viktor Pohorelsky said in an order issued on Tuesday that Amnesty did not have to disclose the names of lawyers quoted anonymously in a report about them being videotaped while talking to their clients in prison.

“Amnesty is part of the press in terms of gathering information and disseminating it -- they serve that function,” said Wallace Neel, a lawyer representing Amnesty International.

An official with Human Rights Watch said any ruling that boosted protection for human rights organizations is positive.

“Our sources depend on confidentiality to come forward,” said David Fathi, U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch in Washington.

The issue came up in a lawsuit filed in 2004 in which lawyers complained that employees at a federal jail in New York City surreptitiously recorded their conversations with clients who were arrested following the September 11 attacks.

Lawyers for Legal Aid, which provides legal services to the poor, brought the suit, claiming jail managers and administrators ordered or sanctioned the recordings. The overall case has yet to be heard.

Amnesty International was drawn into the suit because a report it issued in March 2002 said some attorneys were concerned about being recorded.

Lawyers for jail officials wanted Amnesty to disclose the names of lawyers quoted anonymously in the report but the human rights group refused in all but the case of Bryan Lonegan, who agreed to waive his confidentiality.

The magistrate judge ordered that Amnesty International did not have to disclose the names of its sources, apart from the name of a lawyer that Lonegan had mentioned to Amnesty.

Raymond Granger, a lawyer for defendant David Rardin, former Northeast Regional Director of the Bureau of Prisons, said gaining access to that information was a positive.

“Both parties won some and lost some. We’re very happy that the magistrate ordered Amnesty International ... to provide at least some of the information and materials we had sought,” Granger said.

Editing by Daniel Trotta and Bill Trott