We’ve paid a good deal of attention to the plight of detainees at Guantanamo Bay but very little to the many people who were detained domestically after 9/11, mostly immigrants who had overstayed their visas who were rounded up and assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that one lawsuit about the conditions of their detention, one that specifically sues former AG John Ashcroft and former FBI Director Robert Mueller, can go forward.
The case, which was filed 13 years ago and has taken a tortured path through the federal courts, was filed by a group of men who were detained immediately after 9/11. One of the first things the federal government did was track down everyone who was on an expired visa and the ones they thought might be Arab or Muslim were thrown in prison under horrifying conditions and kept there indefinitely while the FBI investigated them to see if they had any role in terrorism. Then they deported them. Their treatment during detention was pretty much everything wrong with this country.
The plaintiffs in Turkmen v. Ashcroft and other 9/11 detainees were placed in solitary confinement for months on end and abused, even though they were only charged with civil immigration violations like overstaying a visa or working without authorization. Though the government had no reason beyond their race and religion to consider them dangerous, they were detained as “suspected terrorists” until cleared of any connection to terrorism by the FBI, and then deported. Among other documented abuses, many of the 9/11 detainees had their faces smashed into a wall where guards had pinned a t-shirt with a picture of an American flag and the words, “These colors don’t run.” The men were slammed against the t-shirt upon their entrance to MDC and told, “Welcome to America.” The t-shirt was smeared with blood, yet it stayed up on the wall at MDC for months.
In its detailed 109-page decision, the court roundly rejected the government’s national security justification for racial profiling: “[T]here is no legitimate governmental purpose in holding someone as if he were a terrorist simply because he happens to be, or appears to be, Arab or Muslim.”
“I am very delighted with the court’s ruling,” said Benamar Benatta, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “It has been a long and stressful process that has taken a tremendous toll on my life, however, it is this kind of bold decision that restores my faith in the U.S. judicial system and gives me hope that justice will be served at the end. It is time for those officials at the highest levels of government to stop hiding behind excuses and answer for their arbitrary and discriminatory decisions that affected, and in some cases ruined, innocent people’s lives.”
A district court judge had dismissed the claims against Ashcroft, Mueller, and Ziglar on the grounds that the complaint did not contain sufficient detail linking them to how the detained men were mistreated, but he allowed claims against the prison officials to proceed. In its ruling today, the court simultaneously rejected an attempt to dismiss the claims against the warden and other prison officials who carried out the abuse against the men while they were detained at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn.
But one thing that happened since the district court ruling was the release two reports from the DOJ’s Inspector General, which detailed exactly how Ashcroft and Mueller could be directly tied to the detention and mistreatment of the plaintiffs. That report showed that Mueller had established a task force in the FBI and directed it himself, being in daily contact with the FBI field offices in New York and New Jersey where the plaintiffs were detained. And Ashcroft personally established the “hold‐until‐cleared” policy that treated them as guilty until the FBI could prove them innocent.
This does not mean that Ashcroft and Mueller will ultimately be found liable in the case, but it does mean the plaintiffs will get their day in court to prove their case, assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t overturn the appeals court. And you can be certain that the Obama administration will appeal the case, proving once again that this president’s record of zealously protecting the executive branch from any and all accountability for its illegal actions in the war on terror is every bit as bad as Bush’s was. Maybe worse.
The 2nd Circuit ruling ends with an unusual “final thoughts” section:
If there is one guiding principle to our nation it is the rule of law. It protects the unpopular view, it restrains fear‐based responses in times of trouble, and it sanctifies individual liberty regardless of wealth, faith, or color. The Constitution defines the limits of the Defendants’ authority; detaining individuals as if they were terrorists, in the most restrictive conditions of confinement available, simply because these individuals were, or appeared to be, Arab or Muslim exceeds those limits. It might well be that national security concerns motivated the Defendants to take action, but that is of little solace to those who felt the brunt of that decision. The suffering endured by those who were imprisoned merely because they were caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9/11 is not without a remedy.