Rights Group Decries Military Cover-Up and Overuse of National Security Exception in Keeping Cases out of Court
June 13, 2011, Washington and New York – Today, nearly five years to the day after three men died at Guantánamo in June 2006 under still-unexplained circumstances, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and co-counsel are appealing the dismissal by the District Court for the District of Columbia of a civil lawsuit Al-Zahrani v. Rumsfeld. The military has maintained that the deaths were suicides, having once famously called them “acts of asymmetrical warfare.” In January 2010, new evidence from four soldiers stationed at the base at the time of the deaths came to light, suggesting that the military’s narrative was a cover-up and that the men may have been killed at a black site at Guantanamo.
“My son Yasser was 17 when he was taken to Guantánamo and 21 when he died there,” said Talal Al-Zahrani, father of Yasser Al-Zahrani. “I have waited for five years for meaningful answers to my questions about how my son died, but the U.S. government has never contacted me. Not when my son died, not in response to my questions afterwards and not to this day. And the fact that the government has not only failed to properly investigate his death but is also attempting to block review by the courts is both hard to believe and very painful for my family. We just want the truth and for those responsible to be held accountable.”
Nashwan Al-Salami, whose brother Salah also died at Guantánamo, said, “For five years the U.S. government and courts have blocked my family’s efforts to know the truth about how my brother died. My father died without ever learning what happened to his son, and I continue to hope for real answers and justice.”
Tarek Dergoul, a British citizen who was wrongfully detained at Guantánamo and is now back home in England, said, “I knew Yasser, Salah, and Mani personally, for a long period of time, and I knew of their deep will to resist being broken by Guantánamo and to live. These were beautiful men, and Yasser and Mani used to sing songs and recite poetry to lift the spirits of the other detained men. They always fought for the rights of all of us to be free from the abuses we were tormented with, and they were repeatedly subjected to harsh treatment because of this. I have never believed these men committed suicide as the government claims.”
The families had presented the new evidence from the soldiers to the district court, requesting that it reconsider its prior dismissal of the case. The court denied the request, holding that even with allegations of an off-site killing, national security “special factors” continue to bar the constitutional claims and that the defendants are further protected by qualified immunity. With respect to the international law claims, the court held that the new evidence was insufficient to challenge the presumption that the defendants were acting within the scope of their authorized duties and were entitled to absolute immunity. Courts have consistently relied on “special factors,” “state secrets” and the “political question” doctrines to dismiss torture and abuse cases brought before them. Not once in the past decade has a court either evaluated the actual facts of such a case or ruled on the legality of the conduct.
CCR attorneys pointed to other documented examples of deaths and killings covered-up by the military in the recent past, including the falsification of records in the death of former football player Pat Tillman and the premeditated murders of Afghan civilians by members of the Army’s Bravo Company.
“The new evidence is not the result of the wild speculations of the families, or their attorneys, or a journalist. It comes from the eye-witness accounts of four decorated soldiers who were compelled to come forward by their consciences, out of a sense of duty, and at great personal and professional risk. In this context, where the only people who know the truth are our clients’ dead sons and individuals within the government, the information these four men have brought forward is critical. It must give these families a chance to reopen their case. It is shameful that this information hasn’t been given greater consideration by the court,” said CCR staff attorney Pardiss Kebriaei, lead counsel in the case.
Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights called on supporters to demand an independent investigation into the deaths and to ask the Obama Justice Department to change course from the prior administration’s policy of attempting to block every torture and abuse case, including Al-Zahrani v. Rumsfeld, from proceeding. In all these cases, the victims and their families seek accountability, justice and answers.
The case, filed on behalf of the families of two of the deceased men, Yasser Al-Zahrani of Saudi Arabia and Salah Ali Abdullah Ahmed Al-Salami of Yemen, charged the government and 24 federal officials with responsibility for the men’s abuse, wrongful detention and ultimate deaths. Early last year, the court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case. Following the dismissal, the families filed a motion for reconsideration on the basis of the evidence from the soldiers, as reported by Scott Horton in Harper’s Magazine in March 2010, arguing that the new facts compelled the court to reopen the case.
The suit was brought by CCR and co-counsel William Goodman of Goodman & Hurwitz, P.C. and Johanna Kalb of the College of Law at Loyola University.
The decision, the complaint, the government briefs and other court documents, as well as video of Mr. Talal Zahrani addressing the U.S. government, courts and people regarding his son’s death can be found on CCR’s legal case page
CCR has led the legal battle over Guantanamo for the last nine years – sending the first ever habeas attorney to the base and sending the first attorney to meet with an individual transferred from CIA “ghost detention” to Guantanamo. CCR has been responsible for organizing and coordinating hundreds of pro bono lawyers across the country to represent the men at Guantanamo, ensuring that nearly all have the option of legal representation. In addition, CCR has been working to resettle men who remain at Guantánamo because they cannot return to their country of origin for fear of persecution and torture.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.