An appellate court ruled Tuesday that the families of two Guantanamo detainees who the government says hanged themselves in their cells cannot sue for damages in U.S. courts.
The families of the detainees claimed former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials were responsible for the deaths in 2006 and sued for unspecified money damages. They say the detainees died after being subject to arbitrary detention, torture, inhuman treatment, violations of the Geneva Conventions and cruel and unusual punishment at the U.S. detention center.
But three conservative judges on the federal appeals court in Washington ruled that U.S. courts do not have authority to consider lawsuits related to treatment of Guantanamo detainees under the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress in 2006. They said the Supreme Court has only given federal judges the authority to determine whether detainees are being properly held or should be released.
The judges wrote that although the families argued the Military Commissions Act's failure to allow treatment suits is unconstitutional because it doesn't provide a way to challenge to violations of constitutional rights, "the only remedy they seek is money damages, and, as the government rightly argues, such remedies are not constitutionally required." The judges who issued the opinion were President Ronald Reagan nominees David Sentelle and Stephen Williams, and President George H.W. Bush nominee Raymond Randolph.
Yasser Al-Zahrani and Salah Ali Abdullah Ahmed Al-Salami were among three men who the military said were found hanging in their cells by their bed sheets in June 2006. Military investigators said suicide notes found in their pockets expressed their desire for martyrdom, while the lawsuit raises doubts about the official explanation that they killed themselves and says the cause of death remains an open question.
"The court's decision today means that men like them can be tortured and even killed at the hands of U.S. officials, and no court can have anything to say about it," said Pardiss Kebriaei, who argued the case for the families before the appeals court.
The three were the first of six prisoners who have died in apparent suicides since the detention center opened on the U.S. base in Cuba in January 2002. Two other prisoners have died from what officials said were natural causes.
Al-Zahrani, 22 years old when he died, was from Saudi Arabia and captured in Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the suit by the men's families. Al-Salami, 37, was from Yemen and arrested by local forces in Pakistan in March 2002. The lawsuit says both had gone on long hunger strikes to protest their imprisonment and treatment.
The suit was filed on their families' behalf by the New-York based Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents dozens of detainees. The group said the family of the third detainee, 30-year-old Saudi Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, did not want to participate in the suit.