(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday ruled that John Yoo, a former legal counsel to the Bush administration, is immune from a lawsuit by an American citizen convicted on terrorism charges who said he was tortured at a military jail in South Carolina.
Jose Padilla, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2007, had accused Yoo of helping to formulate policies under which those designated as “enemy combatants” by the U.S. government were interrogated and detained.
The San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision which had allowed the suit to proceed.
The appeals court found it was unclear at the time of Yoo’s tenure that designated enemy combatants were entitled to the same constitutional protections as other accused criminals. It was also not clearly established at the time that Padilla’s treatment amounted to torture, the court ruled.
Padilla, a Muslim convert turned al Qaeda recruit, was arrested in Chicago on his return from abroad in 2002 and initially accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in a U.S. city.
He was never charged with planning such an attack, but President George W. Bush ordered authorities to hold him as an “enemy combatant” and interrogate him in a military brig where he was detained in isolation for 3-1/2 years.
Padilla and two co-defendants were convicted on charges of conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim people abroad, and providing material support for terrorism.
Padilla accused Yoo of overstepping his role as a lawyer to develop the interrogation policy. He sought a declaration that his designation as an enemy combatant, his military detention and his treatment in custody were unconstitutional.
In a separate case in January, another appeals court rejected a similar suit Padilla filed against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other officials. Padilla has appealed that case to the Supreme Court.
Miguel Estrada, a lawyer for Yoo, said in a statement that Padilla had “now lost before two separate courts of appeals, and will need to find a new hobby for his remaining time in prison.”
The case before the 9th Circuit is Padilla et al v. Yoo, No. 09-16478.
Reporting By Terry Baynes; Editing by David Storey