WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court said on Monday it would decide whether a lawsuit can proceed against the former U.S. attorney general and the FBI director in a case brought by a Pakistani man who said he was abused in detention after the September 11 attacks.
The high court agreed to hear an appeal by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller, arguing they cannot be held personally liable in the lawsuit by Javaid Iqbal, who was held more than a year at a Brooklyn detention center after the September 11 attacks.
The decision followed last week’s landmark Supreme Court ruling that held the Guantanamo Bay prisoners can go before U.S. federal judges to seek their release, a setback for President George W. Bush.
Iqbal, a Muslim, said in the lawsuit he was subjected to unlawful ethnic and religious discrimination and subjected to verbal and physical abuse, including unnecessary strip searches and brutal beatings by guards on two occasions.
Besides Ashcroft and Mueller, he sued other current or former U.S. government officials, including the warden at the detention facility and the director of the federal Bureau of Prisons. He seeks unspecified damages.
A U.S. appeals court ruled last year the lawsuit can go forward. It said Iqbal’s lawyers can seek information on what Ashcroft and Mueller knew about the policies adopted for those detained in New York City after the September 11 attacks.
In the weeks after the attacks, U.S. authorities detained 762 non-citizens, almost all Muslims or Arabs. Many of those held at the federal prison in Brooklyn suffered verbal and physical abuse, the U.S. Justice Department’s inspector general found.
The case presents the Supreme Court with a test on the right to hold high-ranking government officials legally responsible for the treatment of those rounded up after the September 11 attacks.
Ashcroft and Mueller argued they have qualified legal immunity because any misconduct was done by much lower-level officials. They said high-level officials may not be held personally liable for the acts of subordinates just on the theory they knew of the alleged discrimination.
U.S. Justice Department attorneys said the appeals court ruling has the potential to subject top government officials to questioning and possible trial, even when they are responding to a national security crisis.
Iqbal’s attorneys replied that Ashcroft was a principal architect of the policies challenged in the lawsuit while Mueller was instrumental in their implementation. Ashcroft and Mueller knew of or condoned the activities, they said.
Iqbal was arrested for having false Social Security papers. He pleaded guilty in 2002, was released in 2003 and deported to Pakistan. The lawsuit was filed in 2004.
The U.S. government paid $300,000 to settle with Iqbal’s co-plaintiff and fellow detainee Ehab Elmaghraby, an Egyptian.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments and decide the case during its upcoming term that begins in October.
Editing by Alan Elsner and David Alexander