updated 9/29/2005 2:25:44 PM ET 2005-09-29T18:25:44

Pictures of detainee abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison must be released despite government claims that they could damage America’s image, a judge ruled Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein ordered the release of certain pictures, saying terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven they “do not need pretexts for their barbarism.”

“Our nation does not surrender to blackmail, and fear of blackmail is not a legally sufficient argument to prevent us from performing a statutory command,” the judge wrote in his 50-page decision. “Indeed, the freedoms that we champion are as important to our success in Iraq and Afghanistan as the guns and missiles with which our troops are armed.”

The American Civil Liberties Union sought the release of 87 photographs and four videotapes as part of an October 2003 lawsuit demanding information on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody and the transfer of prisoners to countries known to use torture. The ACLU contends that prisoner abuse is systemic.

Brutal images of the abuse at the prison have already been widely distributed, but the lawsuit covers additional photos not yet seen by the public.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, had maintained in court papers that releasing the photographs would aid al-Qaida recruitment, weaken the Afghan and Iraqi governments and incite riots against U.S. troops.

Hellerstein said in his 50-page opinion that he respected Myers’ arguments. But he added that his job was “not to defer to our worst fears, but to interpret and apply the law, in this case, the Freedom of Information Act, which advances values important to our society, transparency and accountability in government.”

The ruling was expected to be appealed, which could delay a release for months.

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero called it historic. “While no one wants to see what’s on the photos or videos, they will play an essential role in holding our government leaders accountable for the torture that’s happened on their watch,” he said.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, which argued the case for the government, did not immediately comment.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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