WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court ruled on Friday that four former Guantanamo prisoners, all British citizens, have no right to sue top Pentagon officials and military officers for torture, abuse and violations of their religious rights.
The decision by a three-judge panel to dismiss the lawsuit came exactly six years after the first detainees arrived at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
The prison, which has been widely criticized by human rights advocates, now holds about 275 prisoners. President George W. Bush has acknowledged the prison’s damage to the U.S. image and has said he would like to see it closed eventually.
The four who brought the lawsuit — Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed and Jamal al-Harith — were released from Guantanamo in 2004 after being held for more than two years.
The suit sought $10 million in damages and named then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and 10 military commanders.
The men claimed they were subjected to various forms of torture, harassed as they practiced their religion and forced to shave their religious beards. In one instance, a guard threw a Koran in a toilet bucket, according to the lawsuit.
The appeals court cited a lack of jurisdiction over the lawsuit, ruled the defendants enjoyed qualified immunity for acts taken within the scope of their government jobs and held the religious right law did not apply to the detainees.
Eric Lewis, the attorney who argued the case for the detainees, vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It is an awful day for the rule of law and common decency when a court finds that torture is all in a days’ work for the secretary of defense and senior generals,” Lewis said.
Another attorney for the plaintiffs, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, expressed disappointment that the appeals court failed to hold “Rumsfeld and the chain of command accountable for torture at Guantanamo.”
The appeals court, in an opinion written by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, ruled the lawsuit does not allege the defendants acted as rogue officials who adopted a policy of torture unrelated to the gathering of intelligence.
“Here it was foreseeable that conduct that would ordinarily be indisputably ‘seriously criminal’ would be implemented by military officials responsible for detaining and interrogating suspected enemy combatants,” she wrote
The judge ruled the prisoners were not covered by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because they “are aliens and were located outside sovereign United States territory” at the time of the alleged violations.
In a separate ruling, the appeals court rejected a group’s efforts to obtain information about the advice non-government lawyers gave the Defense Department regarding regulations for trials of Guantanamo prisoners.
In 2001, Bush issued an order establishing military commissions to try suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo.
The Pentagon issued regulations for the trials, after consulting former high-ranking government officials and academic experts. A group called the National Institute of Military Justice sued seeking access to those recommendations.
In a 2-1 opinion, the appeals court held the records were exempt from disclosure under the freedom of information law.
More than 80 people protesting the Guantanamo prison were arrested at the Supreme Court, which is considering a case on the rights of Guantanamo prisoners.
In New York’s Times Square, activists marked the sixth Guantanamo anniversary by staging a demonstration of waterboarding in the middle of a rainstorm. The interrogation practice has been at the center of a bitter dispute about what constitutes torture.
(Additional reporting by Claudia Parsons)
Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by David Alexander and Chris Wilson