Groups sue Rumsfeld in abuse of detainees

Lawsuit seeks damages in torture of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan

March 02, 2005|By James Gerstenzang | James Gerstenzang,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Seeking to link the U.S. military command to the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American Civil Liberties Union and a human rights organization sued Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and three Army commanders yesterday on behalf of former detainees, charging that the military authorized illegal interrogation techniques.

The federal lawsuit accuses Rumsfeld of ordering 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, Iraq. However, it also includes less-known examples of abuse at other sites in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The lawsuit was filed in on behalf of four Iraqis and four Afghanis by the ACLU and the group Human Rights First.

The civil liberties 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 the 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.

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, as commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade in Iraq, oversaw interrogations there.

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."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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