In the last week, two different federalcourts have demonstrated a commitment to accountability for torture perpetratedby US officials.
The DC District Court allowed a lawsuit fordamages to go forward against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld andother high-ranking officials, including Secretary of Homeland Security JanetNapolitano, and FBI Director Robert Mueller. At the heart of the case is aUS citizen and army veteran who went to Iraq as a civilian employee of anAmerican defense contractor. The man, John Doe, claims that as he was on hisway home for leave, he was abducted by the American military, handcuffed,blindfolded, held in solitary confinement for 72 hours, and then detained in amilitary jail and subject to abuse for several months. Doe alleges that US prison guards tortured him using “psychologically-disruptivetactics designed to induce compliance” and exposed him to extreme cold andcontinuous artificial light, blindfolded and hooded him, and subjected him to“intolerably” loud music and noises. In his lawsuit, the army veteran claims thatRumsfeld personally approved torture on a case-by-case basis and did not allowhim an attorney or access to US courts.
Although the Department of Justice sought to dismiss the case altogether,arguing that Rumsfeld cannot be sued personally for official conduct and thatthe courts should not be inquiring into wartime decisions, Judge James Gwinrejected those arguments. Gwin said that American citizens are protected by theConstitution at home or when detained in a conflict zone abroad.
Similarly, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit also refused to dismiss a torture case against Rumsfeld. The plaintiffs — both Americancitizens — claim they were tortured whilein US military custody after blowing the whistle on alleged illegalactivities by their employer, a private contracting company. They say they were subjected to sleepdeprivation, blasting music, hunger, and various threats. They also allege that Rumsfeldpersonally took part in approving the methods for use by the US military inIraq.
In a 2-1 opinion, the court found that damages could be “available for the alleged torture of civilian US citizensby US military personnel in a war zone." The court also saw nojustification for the defendants' arguments, which would “deprive civilian UScitizens of a civil judicial remedy for torture or even cold-blooded murder byfederal officials and soldiers, at any level, in a war zone."
In light of previous court decisions involving torture by US officials ofnon-US citizens, the decisions are a welcomed and important step towardholding the United States accountable when it engages in torture and abuse — evenin wartime. As retired Supreme CourtJustice Sandra Day O’Connor stated in Hamdiv Rumsfeld, “A state of war is not a blank check for the president when itcomes to the rights of the nation’s citizens.”
Despite the human rights victory the judicial opinions bring, the fundamentalhuman right to be free from torture and abuse is guaranteed, if just barely,for US citizens only. Accountabilityfor misconduct should be the standard when any human being is tortured,regardless of citizenship.