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Obama Justice Department Urges Dismissal of Another Torture Case

In another move that suggests the Obama Department of Justice is not making many big policy breaks with its predecessor when it comes to the legal rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees, the department filed a brief renewing the government’s motion to dismiss the case of Rasul v. Rumsfeld.

The case is very similar to the lawsuit filed by U.S. citizen and former enemy combatant Jose Padilla against former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, which I’ve been following. The plaintiffs in Rasul v. Rumsfeld allege that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior Bush officials are responsible for their torture; prolonged arbitrary detention; cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; cruel and unusual punishment; denial of liberties without due process, and preventing the exercise and expression of their religious beliefs.

According to their legal complaint, Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed claim they traveled to Afghanistan in October 2001 to offer humanitarian relief to civilians. In late November, they were kidnapped by Rashid Dostum, the Uzbeki warlord and leader of the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance. He turned them over to U.S. custody – apparently for bounty money that American officials were paying for suspected terrorists. In December, without any independent evidence that the men had engaged in hostilities against the United States, U.S. officials sent them to Guantanamo Bay. Over the next two years, they claim — as does a fourth British man — that they were imprisoned in cages, tortured and humiliated, forced to shave their beards and watch their Korans desecrated, until they were returned to Britain in 2004. None were ever charged with a crime.

Dismissed at the urging of the Bush administration, the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In December, the case was sent back to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington for reconsideration, because the Supreme Court had ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that Guantanamo detainees have the right to challenge their detentions. It wasn’t clear what effect that ruling might have on the Rasul case.

Although some civil rights lawyers had hoped the Obama administration would change the government’s position — or at least try to settle this case, which is at the very least an embarrassment to the United States – the former prisoners had no such luck. Today, the Justice Department filed a brief arguing, as it did in Padilla’s case against Yoo, that government officials are not liable for torture, abuse, denial of due process or religious rights, because the right of Guantanamo prisoners not to suffer those abuses at the hands of the U.S. government was not clearly established at the time.

That would seem to contradict previous statements by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder that torture (including waterboarding) and other abuses are clearly illegal, now and always, and that the president can’t simply override that prohibition. It also may discourage those who are hoping the president will eventually support prosecutions of former Bush officials for exactly those crimes.

Reached today, the lead lawyer on the case, Eric Lewis, a partner at the Washington-based law firm, Baach Robinson & Lewis, said he was “disappointed” but “not surprised.”

However, as I’ve pointed out before in the context of the Yoo case, the defense does raise some serious questions about whether the Obama Justice Department really ought to be defending Donald Rumsfeld and his former colleagues in this case at all.

I’ll be writing more about this case and others like it, as well as their implications, in the coming week.

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