Handing another defeat to the Bush administration, the US Supreme Court on Monday summarily reversed a federal appeals court decision that had upheld the administration's restrictive view of detainee rights at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp.
The high court reinstated a lawsuit filed against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other military officials by four former detainees at Guantánamo. The four men, all British citizens, were held at the camp from 2002 to 2004.
Government lawyers had argued successfully to a federal appeals court panel that American officials were protected from such lawsuits by qualified immunity. The panel threw the case out in a decision announced in January.
Six months later, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Boumediene v. Bush, ruling for the first time that Guantánamo detainees enjoy at least some constitutional rights. The court did not outline the full scope of those rights, leaving that task to the lower courts.
The Supreme Court's action on Monday sets the stage for the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., to directly address the scope of constitutional and other protections that will apply to Guantánamo detainees. In its order, the high court issued a one-sentence instruction to the appeals court. It said that the appeals court's earlier decision "is vacated and the case is remanded to the [DC appeals court] for further consideration in light of Boumediene v. Bush."
Solicitor General Gregory Garre had urged the high court to reject the appeal. In a brief to the court, he told the justices that the appeals court's earlier decision did not conflict with any high court decisions, including in the Boumediene opinion.
"The court of appeals reasonably concluded that military detainees could not impose personal monetary liability on the nation's military commanders for overseas conditions of confinement during a time of war," Mr. Garre wrote.
He added that since the detainees had no clearly established rights at the time, US officials could not now be sued for allegedly violating those rights.
Lawyers for the four former detainees disagree. "This petition raises issues at the core of ordered liberty," wrote Washington lawyer Eric Lewis in his brief to the court. "The right to worship free from abuse and the right to be free from physical torture are enshrined in the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, and the Convention Against Torture, military law, and US statutes."
Mr. Lewis said the federal appeals court had thrown out the detainees' lawsuit based on a holding that Guantánamo detainees enjoyed no constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court overturned that ruling last June in the Boumediene decision. Specifically, the court ruled that detainees had a right to challenge the legality of their open-ended confinement by the military.
"While the right to challenge confinement ... is of critical importance," Lewis wrote, "this case presents the opportunity to recognize and enforce rights that are at least as basic and essential to human autonomy – the right to worship and the right not to be tortured."
The four British citizens are Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed, and Jamal al-Harith. Three of the men were captured in Afghanistan by a local warlord and turned over to the US military. The fourth was captured by US forces. They claimed to have gone to Afghanistan on a humanitarian mission. All were sent to Guantánamo.
The action by the high court drew praise from human rights groups. "We applaud the Supreme Court's efforts to guide the United States back to the rule of law by ordering the appeals court to reconsider this case's claims of torture and abuse of the men's religious rights," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
"Amnesty hopes that the appeals court will carefully reconsider its decision in light of the US Supreme Court's significant Boumediene ruling," he said in a written statement. "It is important to help to provide answers and closure to the four men who were held without charge in Guantánamo Bay and then released." Mr. Cox added: "It is the least the US government can do."
The detainees' lawsuit alleges that they were subjected to beatings, prolonged solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, extended exposure to heat or cold, threats from dogs, forced nakedness, repeated body cavity searches, denial of food and water, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and denigration of their religious beliefs, including the submersion of the Koran in a toilet bucket.