The court's ruling is a setback in the fight for accountability, and a blow for those of us who are fighting to roll back government torture policies. While we must fight in the courts -- and no one does that better than CCR -- we also must begin to look for other political avenues to challenge this government and build a strong movement for investigations and prosecutions of torture.
Ruling: No Court Can Hear Abuse and Wrongful Death Claims from Guantanamo
February 17, 2010, New York – Yesterday evening, the district court in Washington, D.C. ruled against two men who died in Guantanamo in June 2006 and their families in a case seeking to hold federal officials and the United States responsible for the men’s torture, arbitrary detention and ultimate deaths at Guantánamo.
Following a two-year investigation, the military concluded that the men had committed suicide. Recent first-hand accounts by four soldiers stationed at the base at the time of the deaths, however, raise serious questions about the cause and circumstances of the deaths, including the possibility that the men died as the result of torture.
In dismissing the case, the district court ruled that the deceased’s constitutional claims that it was a violation of due process and cruel treatment to detain them for four years without charge while subjecting them to inhumane and degrading conditions of confinement and violent acts of torture and abuse, could not be heard in federal court. The men were held on the basis of an “enemy combatant” finding by a Combatant Status Review Tribunal later found by the Supreme Court itself to be inadequate.
The district court held that the claims were barred by a jurisdiction-stripping provision of the 2006 Military Commissions Act that bars any challenge by a Guantánamo detainee to their treatment, conditions, or any other aspect of their detention, while failing to address the plaintiffs’ arguments about the unconstitutionality of the provision itself. The court also dismissed the deceased’s claims under the Alien Tort Claims Act, following a holding by the D.C. Circuit Court in another detainee case that found that even torture or seriously criminal conduct can fall within the proper “scope of employment” of a government actor. Last, the court failed to consider the merits of plaintiffs’ claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act, including for emotional distress by the families, by holding that the U.S. military base at Guantánamo is still a “foreign country” for the purposes of the Act.
“These men were tortured and detained for four years on the basis of an arbitrary designation of ‘enemy combatant’ and died in the custody of the United States military. They and their families should have the right to have their claims heard at the very least,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The court’s decision is all the more troubling in light of recent information that seriously undermines the official account of how these men died, and creates an even greater urgency for transparency and accountability.”
On January 18, 2010, Scott Horton reported in Harper’s Magazine the accounts of four soldiers assigned to guard the camp where the deceased were detained at the time of their deaths. The soldiers’ eye-witness accounts, including that of a ranking Army officer who was on senior guard duty the night of the deaths, strongly suggest that the deceased were taken to a secret “black site” at Guantánamo on the night of their deaths and died at that site or from events that occurred there. The undisclosed facility was thought to have been used by the CIA or the Joint Special Operations Command of the Defense Department to hold and interrogate detainees at Guantánamo. The soldiers further describe a high-level cover-up initiated by the authorities within hours of the men’s deaths, and say they were ordered by their superiors not to speak out.
Additional reports by Seton Hall University School of Law analyzing the military’s investigation files reveal major unanswered questions and information gaps in the official account of the deaths, including failures to review relevant available information and interview material witnesses.
In June, a sixth man died at the base, Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih, also known as Al Hanashi, a 31-year-old Yemeni who had been detained at Guantánamo Bay since 2002.
CCR represents the families of Yasser Al-Zahrani of Saudi Arabia and Salah Al-Salami of Yemen, two men who were reportedly found dead along with a third detainee, Mani Al-Utaybi of Saudi Arabia, in their cells at Guantanamo on June 10, 2006. At the time of their deaths, Al-Zahrani and Al-Salami had been detained incommunicado for more than four years without charge. In letters found following their deaths, the men described their conditions and abuse, including being beaten by teams of military police known as the “Extreme Reaction Force,” deprived of sleep for up to 30 days at a time, subjected to desecration of the Qur’an and forced shaving, and denied necessary medical care. Al-Zahrani, who was 17 at the time of his arrest, wrote of the “continuous oppression” of being isolated in a small cell each day and prohibited human contact.
For more information and case documents in Al Zahrani, click here.
CCR has led the legal battle over Guantanamo for over eight years and has been responsible for organizing and coordinating more than 500 pro bono lawyers across the country in order to represent the men detained there. CCR also works with men who were formerly detained and their families to seek justice and accountability for the abuses suffered during their imprisonment.