Global Policy Forum

Rumsfeld Sued Over Torture in Iraq and Afghanistan


By Jim Lobe

Inter Press Service
March 1, 2005

Two major U.S. human rights groups Tuesday filed a lawsuit in federal court in Chicago against Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on behalf of eight named Afghan and Iraqi plaintiffs who say they were tortured and abused while in the custody of the U.S. military. The 76-page filing by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights First (HRF) asserts that Rumsfeld bears direct responsibility for the torture and abuse of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq and should be held accountable.

The plaintiffs are asking the courts to issue an order declaring that Rumsfeld's actions violate the U.S. Constitution, federal law, and international treaties ratified by the United States, notably the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture (CAT). They are also asking that they be compensated for the harm inflicted by their treatment in detention.

"Secretary Rumsfeld bears direct and ultimate responsibility for this descent into horror by personally authorising unlawful interrogation techniques and by abdicating his legal duty to stop torture," said Lucas Guttentag, lead counsel in the lawsuit and the director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, at a press conference in Washington Tuesday. "He gives lip service to being responsible but has not been held accountable for his actions. This lawsuit puts the blame where it belongs, on the secretary of defence," he added, noting that the case was being filed in Illinois, Rumsfeld's voting residence, because he is being sued in both his personal and official capacities.

The case caps a series of disclosures about U.S. military abuses against detainees held in Afghanistan and Iraq since last April when photos depicting the torture and humiliation of Iraqis held in Abu Ghraib prison first came to light. Since then, the ACLU and other human rights groups have obtained in a separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit thousands of emails and other documents that establish that the abuses depicted in the original photos have been far more widespread than the government has admitted. Confidential reports by the International Red Cross, as well as media interviews with U.S. servicemen and former detainees, have bolstered that conclusion.

Meanwhile, leaks of internal administration memorandums from the White House, the Pentagon and the Justice Department have also shown that Rumsfeld approved specific techniques, including "stress positions", nudity, the use of dogs, prolonged isolation and interrogations, and sensory deprivation -- all of which are considered inappropriate and potentially counter-productive in U.S. Army field manuals -- at various times since 2002.

"There is simply no doubt that his policies caused the abuses to occur," said Guttentag, who said that as defence secretary, Rumsfeld had "command responsibility", a legal doctrine that holds that a commanding officer is liable for acts of his subordinates if he knows or has reason to know that torture or cruel and inhuman treatment is likely to result from the execution of a commander's order. Guttentag said Rumsfeld had received numerous reports about how detainees were treated long before the Abu Ghraib photos were first brought to his attention. He added that other defendants in the chain of command may be added to the case as more evidence of their involvement came to light.

As the evidence of widespread abuses and torture has mounted, human rights groups, the American Bar Association (ABA), a number of top retired military commanders, as well as Democratic lawmakers have called for a full-scale investigation by an independent commission to determine who was responsible. But these appeals have been repeatedly rebuffed by the administration and the Republican majority in Congress. They have insisted that the 300-some investigations, courts-martial, and administrative inquiries that have been or are still being carried out as a result of specific incidents of abuse should be adequate. So far, however, no U.S. official above the rank of lieutenant has been punished.

Critics, however, have pointed out that none of these mechanisms has addressed the possible responsibility of senior civilian officials, although a high-level panel appointed by Rumsfeld reported that his lists of permissible interrogation methods led to confusion in the field as to what was authorised.

"Since Abu Ghraib, we have vigorously campaigned for an independent commission to investigate U.S. policies that have led to torture and cruel treatment of detainees," said Michael Posner, HRF's executive director. "These calls have gone unanswered by the administration and Congress, and today many of the illegal policies remain in place."

"We believed the United States could correct its policy without resort to the courts," he said. "In bringing this action today, we reluctantly conclude that we were wrong."

The eight plaintiffs, who include four Iraqis and four Afghans, allegedly suffered torture or cruel and inhuman treatment, including some combination of severe beatings; stabbings and mutilation; lengthy periods of isolation and sleep and sensory deprivation; mock executions; electric shocks; prolonged exposure to temperature extremes; sexual humiliation, assault and/or sodomy; hanging from ceilings or walls; "stress positions"; and threats against their lives or those of them family during their detention.

One Iraq detainee was only 17 when he was detained in August 2003 and held for four weeks at Abu Ghraib and other prisons. During his arrest, soldiers allegedly shot him in the neck and the back and then refused to provide medical care for several hours. After the bullets were finally removed (without an anesthetic), he was denied food, water, and pain medication for almost two days and repeatedly mistreated during his detention.

All of the plaintiffs have been extensively interviewed by ACLU and HRF lawyers who said they hoped to bring them to the United States to testify personally regarding their experiences in U.S. custody. "They have been extraordinarily courageous," said Deborah Pearlstein, director of HRF's U.S. Law and Security Programme. She noted that none of the former detainees had ever been compensated by U.S. officials for their ordeal, and two of the eight were taken back into custody after they were freed when they inquired about other detainees.

In addition to ACLU and HRF lawyers, the plaintiffs' team includes the former assistant attorney general for civil rights under Bill Clinton, Bill Lann Lee, and several retired military judges, including the former Judge Advocate General of the Navy, Rear Adm. John D. Hutson, and the former chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, Gen. James Cullen.

"This is not an easy thing for me to do," Hutson said Tuesday. "One of the greatest strengths of the U.S. military throughout our history has been strong civilian leadership at the top of the chain of command. Unfortunately, Secretary Rumsfeld has failed to live up to that that tradition. That imperils our troops and undermines the war effort."

Rumsfeld is also ready the target of another lawsuit, one brought last October in Britain by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) representing four British ex-detainees. It named Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, and several other officers for their responsibility in the treatment of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay navy base in Cuba.

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