Historic Ruling: High-Level Bush Officials Including Ashcroft May Be Sued for Post-9/11 Abuse of Immigration Detainees at Metropolitan Detention Center

June 17, 2015, New York – Today, in a case brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) thirteen years ago, in April 2002, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated claims against former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former FBI director Robert Mueller, and former INS Commissioner James Ziglar for their roles in the post-9/11 immigration detentions, abuse, and religious profiling of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian men. It is exceedingly rare for a court to allow claims against such high-level officials to proceed.

In an unusual “Final Thoughts” section in the opinion, the court wrote:

If there is one guiding principle to our nation it is the rule of law. It protects the unpopular view, it restrains fear‐based responses in times of trouble, and it sanctifies individual liberty regardless of wealth, faith, or color. The Constitution defines the limits of the Defendants’ authority; detaining individuals as if they were terrorists, in the most restrictive conditions of confinement available, simply because these individuals were, or appeared to be, Arab or Muslim exceeds those limits. It might well be that national security concerns motivated the Defendants to take action, but that is of little solace to those who felt the brunt of that decision. The suffering endured by those who were imprisoned merely because they were caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9/11 is not without a remedy.

“We are thrilled with the court’s ruling.The court took this opportunity to remind the nation that the rule of law and the rights of human beings, whether citizens or not, must not be sacrificed in the face of national security hysteria,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol. “Punishing low-level perpetrators is necessary, but hardly sufficient to prevent future abuse. Orders came from officials at the highest levels of government. Now we have the chance to ensure that they are held accountable and not treated as if they are above the law.”

The plaintiffs in Turkmen v. Ashcroft and other 9/11 detainees were placed in solitary confinement for months on end and abused, even though they were only charged with civil immigration violations like overstaying a visa or working without authorization. Though the government had no reason beyond their race and religion to consider them dangerous, they were detained as “suspected terrorists” until cleared of any connection to terrorism by the FBI, and then deported.  Among other documented abuses, many of the 9/11 detainees had their faces smashed into a wall where guards had pinned a t-shirt with a picture of an American flag and the words, “These colors don’t run.”  The men were slammed against the t-shirt upon their entrance to MDC and told, “Welcome to America.”  The t-shirt was smeared with blood, yet it stayed up on the wall at MDC for months.

In its detailed 109-page decision, the court roundly rejected the government’s national security justification for racial profiling: “[T]here is no legitimate governmental purpose in holding someone as if he were a terrorist simply because he happens to be, or appears to be, Arab or Muslim.”

“I am very delighted with the court's ruling,” said Benamar Benatta, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “It has been a long and stressful process that has taken a tremendous toll on my life, however, it is this kind of bold decision that restores my faith in the U.S. judicial system and gives me hope that justice will be served at the end. It is time for those officials at the highest levels of government to stop hiding behind excuses and answer for their arbitrary and discriminatory decisions that affected, and in some cases ruined, innocent people's lives."

A district court judge had dismissed the claims against Ashcroft, Mueller, and Ziglar on the grounds that the complaint did not contain sufficient detail linking them to how the detained men were mistreated, but he allowed claims against the prison officials to proceed. In its ruling today, the court simultaneously rejected an attempt to dismiss the claims against the warden and other prison officials who carried out the abuse against the men while they were detained at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn.

The court wrote, “[W]e simply cannot conclude at this stage that concern for the safety of our nation justified the violation of the constitutional rights on which this nation was built. The question at this stage of the litigation is whether the MDC Plaintiffs have plausibly pleaded that the Defendants exceeded the bounds of the Constitution in the wake of 9/11. We believe that they have.”

Read today’s ruling here.

To learn more about the case, visit the Turkmen v. Ashcroft case page.

The Turkmen plaintiffs are represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, cooperating attorney Michael Winger, and Covington & Burling, LLP.

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.


Last modified 

June 17, 2015