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Supreme Court Sends Guantanamo Torture Case Back to Lower Court

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Earlier Ruling Found Detainees Not “Persons” Under U.S. Law, Torture Foreseeable Consequence of Military Detention

CONTACT: press@ccrjustice.org

December 15, 2008, Washington, D.C. –  In Rasul v. Myers, the first case to challenge torture and violations of religious freedom at Guantánamo, the U.S. Supreme Court today granted certiorari, vacated the underlying opinion and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of its opinion in Boumediene v. Bush, which earlier this year recognized the constitutional right of Guantanamo detainees to challenge detention through habeas corpus.

“We are delighted with the Supreme Court’s action,” said Eric Lewis of Baach Robinson & Lewis PLLC in Washington, lead counsel for the four British detainees who were plaintiffs in the action brought against former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Generals in the chain of command. “In taking this action, the Supreme Court gave a clear signal to the Court of Appeals that its decision, which refused to recognize a right not to be tortured and a right to religious freedom at Guantanamo, was plainly wrong and should be overturned.”

The case, which was filed in 2004 as Rasul v. Rumsfeld, alleged that the four British detainees had been wrongly detained for more than two years at Guantanamo.  They were never accused of terrorism or designated as enemy combatants.  They were systematically beaten, threatened with unmuzzled dogs, subjected to extremes of hot and cold and harassed in their practice of religion, including having their Korans thrown in filthy toilet buckets and having earsplitting music played during prayer time.  

The suit alleged that the detainees’ treatment was part of a systematic plan to “break detainees.”  Although the Defense Department denounced the allegations as Al Qaeda disinformation, documents released last week by the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmed that Rumsfeld and senior generals in fact carefully orchestrated the torture and abuse techniques at Guantanamo as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision issued in January 2008, some five months before the Supreme Court’s opinion last term in Boumediene, the Court of Appeals found that there was no right not to be tortured because, in their view, Guantanamo detainees had no constitutional rights.  The Court of Appeals also held that torture was foreseeable in the context of interrogation and was within the scope of employment of government officials.  With respect to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which protects all “persons” in the exercise of their religion, the Court of Appeals held that Guantanamo detainees are not “persons.”  

Judge Janice Rogers Brown issued a concurrence noting that the ruling left the Court of Appeals “with the unfortunate and quite dubious distinction of being the only court to declare those held at Guantanamo are not ‘persons.’  This is a most regrettable holding in a case where plaintiffs have alleged high-level U.S. government officials treated them as less than human.”

“It is an important step that the Supreme Court would reach out and vacate an opinion that denied rights that are fundamental to human dignity,” said Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which was co-counsel in the case.  “We are hopeful that with the Supreme Court’s clear signal, these critical rights of detainees to live without torture and to practice their religion will be affirmed and that government officials who implemented these unconstitutional and immoral policies will be held accountable.”

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.