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Lawyers Slam DOJ for Arguing U.S. Officials Aren’t Liable for Torture Abroad

I’ve been following the small but growing number of lawsuits brought on behalf of torture victims against U.S. government officials for more than a year now, but the opening statement in a brief filed with the Supreme Court on Monday on behalf of four British former Guantanamo prisoners may be the most eloquent statement on the issue I’ve seen yet.

While conceding that “Torture is illegal under federal law, and the United States government repudiates it”, even now the Solicitor General stops short of acknowledging that torture directed, approved and implemented by officials of the United States is so repugnant that it also violates fundamental rights; no less so when hidden from public view at Guantánamo Bay. Respondents appear willing to let the final word on torture and religious abuse at Guantánamo be that government officials can torture and abuse with impunity and will be immune from liability for doing so. Yet whether United States officials are free to engage in despicable acts in a place wholly controlled by the United States is the pre-eminent constitutional issue of our time, and it is squarely presented to this Court for decision in this case.

Rasul v. Rumsfeld, as I’ve explained before, is one of the first lawsuits brought by victims of the Bush administration’s torture and abuse policies. The plaintiffs claim they were in Afghanistan to do humanitarian relief work when they were captured by the Northern Alliance and turned over (or sold for bounty) to U.S. authorities. They were eventually shipped to Guantanamo Bay, where they were imprisoned in cages and, they claim, tortured and humiliated, forced to shave their beards and watch their Korans desecrated. All of these claims are backed up by the legal memos that have since been produced from the Department of Justice that authorized such techniques as part of “enhanced” interrogations. The men were returned home to the UK without charge in 2004.

Many other victims of the Bush administration’s abuse policies have been precluded from suing because in 2006, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, which stripped the federal courts of jurisdiction over claims challenging the “detention, transfer, treatment, or conditions of confinement” of detainees who were considered “enemy combatants” by the U.S. military and detained abroad. (That provision of the law is being challenged in another lawsuit filed recently, which I describe here.) The plaintiffs in the Rasul case, however, were never even deemed “enemy combatants” by the U.S. military.

Still, the Obama administration is arguing, as it is in other cases, that it was not clear that foreigners picked up in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay had a right not to be tortured by the U.S. government. But more than that, it’s arguing — as the lawyers in the Rasul case emphasize in the excerpt from their brief I quoted above — that there is no right under the Constitution not to be tortured at Guantanamo Bay, or at any offshore American-run prison.

As the Department of Justice recently wrote in another torture case: The “Fifth and Eighth Amendments do not extend to Guantánamo Bay detainees.”

In other words, it’s not just that former detainees can’t sue Bush administration officials for torture because the law wasn’t clear back in 2002 or 2003, but the Obama administration is arguing also that there is no fundamental right not to be tortured, and therefore any government official in the future could similarly claim to be immune from a lawsuit for torture.

Eric Lewis and the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represent the four British men in the Rasul case, are now pleading with the U.S. Supreme Court to say it isn’t so, and accept their appeal from a D.C. Circuit Court ruling that dismissed the case.

The government seeks “to leave the law unsettled and to pull a cloak of immunity, now and in the future, over government torturers,” they write in their brief.

It is essential that this Court lay down a strong and clear message that officially ordered torture is abhorrent and always a violation of fundamental rights. Without this Court’s guidance, the court of appeals’ studied indifference to the torture of Guantanamo detainees remains the final word on the issue and, indeed, could provide further cover for a claim of qualified immunity in the future in the unfortunate event that the specter of torture recurs.

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