Court rules against American citizen held by U.S. agents in Africa

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 23, 2015 12:11 PM

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Friday threw out a lawsuit by an American citizen who says he was mistreated when detained by U.S. officials for four months in three different African countries.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled against Amir Meshal on a 2-1 vote. The court held that legal precedent that allows U.S. officials to be sued individually for violations of the U.S. Constitution has never been applied to overseas conduct.

Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer who represents Meshal in coordination with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the ruling "endangers the rights all Americans have under the Constitution."

Meshal was detained, initially by Kenyan officials, after he traveled to Somalia from New Jersey in 2006 to study Islam. He was first held in Kenya, before being moved to Somalia and then Ethiopia.

Meshal said he was held for four months, denied access to a lawyer and threatened with torture and death. He said that four FBI agents, including lead defendant Chris Higgenbotham, participated in the interrogation. The agents wanted him to confess to connections with Islamist militant group al Qaeda, Meshal said.

Meshal was eventually released without charge and returned to the United States. He sued in federal court in 2009, saying his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures was violated. A federal judge in Washington dismissed the claim in 2014, prompting Meshal's appeal.

In the appeals court decision, Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote that the U.S. Congress has not created a legal remedy that covers U.S. citizens detained overseas by U.S. authorities.

"If people like Meshal are to have recourse to damages for alleged constitutional violations committed during a terrorism investigation occurring abroad, either Congress or the Supreme Court must specify the scope of the remedy," she added.

Judge Nina Pillard wrote a dissenting opinion in which she noted that had Meshal been detained in the United States "there is no dispute" he could have sued.

"Yet the majority holds that because of unspecified national security and foreign policy concerns, a United States citizen who was arbitrarily detained, tortured and threatened with disappearance by United States law enforcement agents in Africa must be denied any remedy whatsoever."

A U.S. Department of Justice representative could not immediately be reached for comment.

The case is Meshal v. Higgenbotham, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, No. 14-5194.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; editing by Grant McCool)