Seeking to link the U.S. military command to the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ACLU and a human rights organization sued Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and three Army commanders Tuesday on behalf of former detainees, charging that the military authorized illegal interrogation techniques.
The federal lawsuit charges that Rumsfeld ordered the “abandonment of our nation’s inviolable and deep-rooted prohibition against torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of prisoners.
The legal action stems from some of the well-documented instances of prisoner mistreatment in the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad. It also includes lesser-known examples of abuse at other sites in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four Iraqis and four Afghanis by the American Civil Liberties Union and the group Human Rights First.
The groups face considerable obstacles to success under the Alien Tort Claims Act -- among them establishing that Rumsfeld and the others are not protected by official immunity and that the former prisoners have grounds to sue in U.S. courts.
“The lawsuit is not frivolous. But it is unlikely to prove successful in the long run,” said Jonathan Turley, an expert on international law at George Washington University Law School. “The Supreme Court has been extremely hostile toward the application of U.S. laws outside of our borders.”
Nevertheless, if the federal courts allow it to proceed, the suit could bring further attention to the abuse of prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers and force the Pentagon to disclose additional details from its own investigations of the abuse.
The suit says the prisoners were subjected to severe and repeated beatings; were cut with knives; faced sexual humiliation and assault; were confined in a wooden, coffin-like box; were deprived of sleep; were subjected to mock executions; were threatened with death; and were restrained in “contorted and excruciating positions.”
In addition to Rumsfeld, the defendants are Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who led U.S. forces in Iraq in the period immediately after the invasion in 2003; Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the former commander of military police in Iraq who was relieved of her command after the abuse at Abu Ghraib was disclosed; and Army Col. Thomas M. Pappas, who oversaw interrogations as commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade in Iraq.
In response to the suit, the Pentagon denied that it had “approved of, sanctioned or condoned as a matter of policy detainee abuse.” Distancing Rumsfeld from the actions of soldiers in the field, the Defense Department said in a statement: “No policies or procedures approved by the secretary of Defense were intended as, or could conceivably have been interpreted as, a policy of abuse, or as condoning abuse.”
Defense officials said multiple investigations had been conducted and none had found that the department had maintained a policy intended to abuse prisoners.
The suit said that Rumsfeld’s “policies ... and command failures” were responsible for the abuses and that he bore ultimate responsibility for them.
The lawsuit details the experiences of the former prisoners while in custody. None was charged with a crime, and all have been released.
One, Mehboob Ahmad, a 35-year-old Afghan, was left hanging upside down by a chain, sexually assaulted, probed anally, threatened with a snarling dog at close range and forced to drink 6 liters of water in five minutes, among other abuses, according to the lawsuit.
The challenge to Rumsfeld and the others relies to some extent on a Supreme Court decision stemming from the abuse of prisoners in Japan during World War II that placed ultimate blame on top Japanese military officials.
Lucas Guttentag, the ACLU’s lead counsel in the case, said in a telephone interview that the abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, were “the result of the policies and practices that the secretary of Defense put in place and his failure to stop the torture and abuse despite ongoing reports from the Red Cross, human rights organizations and from his own military and the FBI.”
The suit asks the court to declare that the abuse and Pentagon policies were illegal and that they violated the Constitution, the Geneva Convention and military rules. It also asks that Rumsfeld be found responsible for the former prisoners’ injuries and that they be awarded unspecified compensatory damages.
The suit was filed in Illinois because the state is Rumsfeld’s permanent residence. The alternative court would be in northern Virginia, where appeals would go to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. That court has historically been unfriendly to challenges to the Pentagon. Complaints against Sanchez, Karpinski and Pappas were filed in their home states.