Court Of Appeals Rules Detainees are not “Persons” in Guantánamo Torture Suit

April 24, 2009 Washington, D.C. – In a suit brought by British men imprisoned for two years at Guantanamo, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today reaffirmed its previous ruling that Guantanamo detainees lack the fundamental constitutional right not to be tortured and are not “persons” under a U.S. statute protecting religious freedom.  

Last summer, the Supreme Court directed the Court of Appeals to reconsider its previous decision in Rasul v. Rumsfeld in light of the High Court’s decision in Boumediene v. Bush which recognized the constitutional right of habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees.  The plaintiffs urged the Court of Appeals to follow the clear logic of the Boumediene decision and to recognize both the constitutional rights of the detainees to humane and just treatment and the fact that, under any definition of the word, they are “persons” entitled to religious freedom and dignity as required by law.  

“We’re not surprised by the Court’s ruling, but we are disappointed.  The Court failed to follow the Supreme Court’s decision in Boumediene and ignored its own prior decisions holding that habeas corpus is not analytically distinct from other fundamental constitutional rights,” said Eric L. Lewis, of the Washington, DC law firm of Baach Robinson & Lewis, which is lead counsel for the four men in their lawsuit.  “If you get habeas, you should get the other fundamental rights that are guaranteed under the Constitution.”   

In its first filing on detention and torture under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice filed briefs in March urging the Court of Appeals to reject any constitutional or statutory rights for detainees.  The Obama Justice Department further argued that even if such rights were recognized, the Court should rule that the previous administration’s officials who ordered and approved torture and abuse of the plaintiffs should be immune from liability for their actions.

“This is a question about accountability for torture and abuse.  It’s a disgrace to have a U.S. court stating that Guantánamo detainees are not persons.  It would be a shame to have our new President supporting such a position in the Supreme Court.  It was bad enough for the Obama Administration to take this position at this stage.  We hope that they reconsider,” stated Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).  “Boumediene acknowledged that the fundamental rights we take for granted apply to persons in U.S. custody at Guantanamo.  This decision runs directly counter to that principle.”

In its decision today, the court rejected the detainees’ argument that the Boumediene decision compelled the recognition of fundamental constitutional rights for detainees.  Instead, the Court of Appeals held that the Supreme Court’s Boumediene decision applied only to the right of habeas corpus, and that no additional constitutional rights could be extended to detainees unless the Supreme Court specifically authorized and approved such rights.  

In addition, the court reaffirmed its decision from last year that detainees are not “persons” for the purposes of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was enacted in 1993 to protect against government actions that unreasonably interfere with religious practices.  Last year, Judge Janice Rogers Brown, a member of the Court of Appeals panel who issued the decision today, referred to the Court’s holding that detainees are not “persons” as “a most regrettable holding in a case where plaintiffs have alleged high-level U.S. government officials treated them as less than human.” This statement is noticeably absent from Judge Brown’s substantively identical concurring opinion issued today.

For more case information, visit the Rasul v. Rumsfeld case page.

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Last modified 

December 18, 2009