Graphic descriptions of abuse in U.S. military prisons around the world — and questions about civil rights, national security and presidential privilege — have prompted a growing number of lawsuits against the government and the Bush administration.
The plaintiffs include current and former prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, along with activist groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Physicians for Human Rights.
In some cases, the lawsuits seek the whereabouts of people being held in secrecy; in others, prisoners, some held for months or years without being charged, are seeking hearings on their status, or are trying to win rights normally granted in U.S. courtrooms, or by the Geneva Conventions.
Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, said that the United States previously supported the conventions, and that its denial of legal rights to military prisoners will erode humanitarian standards in other countries, and civil rights at home.
“What applies to noncitizens now will be applied to citizens later,” he said.
Based in New York City, the CCR has been at the center of some of the most important legal actions involving prisoners in Cuba and Iraq, including more than 60 habeas corpus suits on behalf of families of inmates at Guantanamo seeking an explanation as to why they are being held as “enemy combatants” without specific charges being filed by the government.
Between 500 and 600 prisoners have been held there since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Most were captured in Afghanistan, although their nationalities vary widely.
“Although people are being released from [Guantanamo] periodically, the number of detainees seems to remain pretty constant, so others are being brought in,” said Dr. Lisa Lynch, an assistant professor of English and media studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “[United Press International] developed the most exhaustive list of prisoners more than a year ago … but there may be many people there no one knows about.”
The government has not acknowledged that the prisons exist, and will not name any inmates.
“Unless we can get access to information about who these people are and where they are being held, they will remain completely vulnerable to abuse and even torture,” said Rachel Meeropol, a CCR lawyer. “We must not be a country that condones disappearances.”
In the Federal District Court in the Southern District of New York, the ACLU, CCR, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Peace filed suit in June 2004 demanding the release of information on military prisoner treatment.
In mid-December, the government began providing that information, which the ACLU says shows abuse of prisoners to be systematic, not an aberration.
The abuse brought to light by the infamous pictures from Abu Ghraib have also generated lawsuits filed in federal district courts, including one in the Southern District of California that names as defendants civilian employees of two private security technology firms, CACI International, and Titan Corporation.
Another suit seeking $10 million in damages has been filed in the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia, seeking to hold Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officers in violation of national and international law for the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo.
The filing is by four British citizens who were held in the Guantanamo prison, and then returned to their home country without being charged with any crimes.
In another court battle, four Iraqi citizens, with the assistance of CCR, filed suit in the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office against United States officials for abuses at Abu Ghraib.
The complaint was filed under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction under the German Code of Crimes Against International Law, which requires the prosecutor to investigate, no matter where the crime occurred or what the nationality of the victim or defendant is.
Three of the plaintiffs are in Germany, which provides additional grounds for filing, Ratner said. His group is trying to generate public support in the United States and abroad to pressure the German prosecutor to investigate.
In Canada, an organization called Lawyers Against the War filed suit in November charging President Bush with torture under the Canadian Criminal Code for torture of prisoners.
The basis of the suit is the United Nations Torture Convention, which was ratified by both the United States and Canada.
Some key court decisions have favored the plaintiffs.
This past summer, a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings established that prisoners have a right to access to civilian courts, and the right to an attorney with whom they can have unmonitored conversations.
The government subsequently set up military tribunals in Guantanamo to establish prisoners’ legal status.
In November, the court found that the tribunals did not adhere to the judicial requirements established by the Geneva Conventions, and that the Bush administration had set them up illegally, without Congressional approval.
The administration has appealed this and other decisions, arguing that the president is entitled to unusual powers to fight terrorism, and that since the detainees are not fighting for a particular country, they are not entitled to the protections of prisoners of war.
According to Ratner, this puts the United States in the position of violating rules and moral standards it previously championed around the world.
“What moral authority will we have to demand that others adhere to human rights, if we do not? What happens to our soldiers when they are captured? What is happening now is a slide into the Middle Ages,” he said.