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Rasul v. Rumsfeld

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Synopsis

Rasul v. Rumsfeld is a lawsuit against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on behalf of four former detainees seeking damages for their arbitrary detention and torture while detained at Guantánamo. 

Status

On January 11, 2008, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dismissed the case. The court affirmed the district court's dismissal of the constitutional and international law claims, and reversed the district court's decision that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) applied to Guantanamo detainees, dismissing those claims as well. On December 15, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the plaintiffs' petition for certiorari, vacated the judgment and remanded the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for further consideration in light of Boumediene v. Bush.

On April 24, 2009, the Court of Appeals came to the same conclusion it had reached prior to Boumediene, this time justifying its dismissal of the case largely on "qualified immunity" grounds — that is, on the notion that courts had not clearly established that the torture and religious abuse of Guantánamo detainees was prohibited at the time those abuses were being carried out against our clients.  Plaintiffs sought review of this opinion in the Supreme Court, but on December 14, 2009, the Supreme Court declined to accept the case.

Description

Rasul v. Rumsfeld is a lawsuit brought against then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and senior military officers. It charges Rumsfeld, the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and senior military officers who are responsible for the treatment of Guantánamo detainees with violations of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), the Fifth and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The suit charges that Secretary Rumsfeld and the military chain of command approved interrogation practices that they knew to be in violation of U.S. and international law, including prolonged arbitrary detention; torture; cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; cruel and unusual punishment; as well as the denial of plaintiffs’ liberties without due process, and preventing the exercise and expression their religious beliefs. The case was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

The plaintiffs were imprisoned without charge for more than two years by the U.S. at Guantánamo. They were subjected to repeated beatings, sleep deprivation, extremes of hot and cold, forced nakedness, death threats, interrogations at gun point, menacing with unmuzzled dogs, and religious and racial harassment. The action seeks $10 million in compensatory damages for each of the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs are Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed, three friends from a working-class town in England who have come to be known as "the Tipton Three," and Jamal Al-Harith, a web designer from Manchester.

The four are not now and have never been members of any terrorist group, and they have never taken up arms against the United States.

They were released in March 2004 and returned to Britain without ever being charged with a crime. Rasul was the lead plaintiff in CCR’s landmark Supreme Court case Rasul v. Bush in which the Court ruled that those held at Guantánamo have a right to judicial review of their detentions.

Timeline

On October 27, 2004, the Center for Constitutional Rights, working with the law firm of Baach Robinson & Lewis, filed Rasul v. Rumsfeld in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of four British detainees released from Guantánamo after more than two years in captivity.

On March 16, 2005, defendants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

On February 6, 2006, the D.C. District Court issued a memorandum opinion Rasul v. Rumsfeld, granting in part the government’s motion to dismiss. The decision dismissed the plaintiffs’ international law claims and the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims. The court ruled that because the plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies by bringing their international law claims to an appropriate federal agency, the plaintiffs’ international law claims were not ripe. Responding to the constitutional law claims, the court held that the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity and that the proper defendant to the suit is the United States, because the defendants were acting within the scope of their employment in authorizing or condoning “aggressive interrogation techniques.”

On May 8, 2006, D.C. District Court issued a memorandum opinion denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) claim. This opinion effectively means that the RFRA applies to the detention facilities at Guantánamo.

On September 14, 2007, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard the cross-appeal in Rasul v. Rumsfeld. In the cross-appeal, the government appealed the lower court’s decision which affirmed that the RFRA does apply to the detainees at Guantánamo; the plaintiffs appealed the lower court’s dismissal of the constitutional and international law claims.

On January 11th, 2008, the sixth anniversary of the opening of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dismissed the case. In a 43-page opinion, Circuit Judge Karen Lecraft Henderson found that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a statute that applies by its terms to all “persons” did not apply to detainees at Guantánamo, effectively ruling that the detainees are not persons at all for purposes of U.S. law. The Court also dismissed the detainees’ claims under the Alien Tort Statute and the Geneva Conventions, finding defendants immune on the basis that “torture is a foreseeable consequence of the military’s detention of suspected enemy combatants.” Finally, the Court found that, even if torture and religious abuse were illegal, defendants were immune under the Constitution because they could not have reasonably known that detainees at Guantánamo had any constitutional rights.

In a separate concurrence, Judge Janice Rogers Brown agreed with the result but attacked the majority for using a definition of person “at odds with its plain meaning.” She observed, “There is little mystery that a ‘person’ is an individual human being…as distinguished from an animal or thing.” Judge Rogers Brown concluded that the majority’s decision “leaves us with the unfortunate and quite dubious distinction of being the only court to declare those held at Guantánamo are not ‘person[s].’ 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.”

On August 22, 2008, the plaintiffs filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States, seeking the high court’s review of the D.C. Circuit decision.  The Petition for Writ of Certiorari asks the Supreme Court to consider whether the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit erred in three major points in its decision:  (1) that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not apply to detainees at Guantánamo because they are not “persons” under the Act; (2) that the Constitution did not protect the petitioners against torture, and that the respondents are immune; and (3) that the ordering of torture by the Secretary of Defense and senior military officers was within the scope of their employment.  The petitioners argue that the decision by the appellate court is inconsistent with the law, including with Supreme Court precedent.

On December 15, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the plaintiffs' petition for certiorari, vacated the judgment and remanded the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for further consideration in light of Boumediene v. Bush.

On March 12, 2009, Rasul plaintiffs and the government filed their Supplemental Briefs in the DC Circuit Court, the first filings in the case after its remand from the Supreme Court.

On April 24, 2009, the D.C. Circuit again dismissed all claims. 

On August 24, 2009, after a brief extension of time for filing, Plaintiffs filed their cert petition. 

On November 13, 2009, the government filed its response, which notably did not explicitly argue that Guantánamo detainees should be held to enjoy no constitutional rights, but only noted in its view several courts had stated as much.

On December 14, 2009, the Supreme Court declined to review the case, denying plaintiff's petition for a writ of certiorari.

 

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