Court: Prisoner’s Suit Against Abu Ghraib Guards Back On

REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit brought by four inmates of Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison against civilian military military contractors, alleging they were tortured.

The case, first filed in 2008, was ruled non-justiciable by a lower court. Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of the Eastern District of Virginia found that the suit asked the court to resolve a non-judicial political question. The political questions doctrine holds that the courts should not resolve questions specifically delegated to other branches of government. The district court rested its finding on three grounds:

(1) that the military exercised direct control over interrogation operations at Abu Ghraib; (2) that adjudication of the plaintiffs’ claims would require the court improperly to question sensitive military judgments; and (3) that the court lacked any judicially manageable standards to resolve the plaintiffs’ claims.

The district court also found a “cloud of ambiguity” surrounds the legal definition of torture.

“We recognize that the legal issues presented in this case are indisputably complex, but we nevertheless cannot abdicate our judicial role in such cases,” wrote Judge Barbara Milano Keenan for a unanimous panel. “Nor will we risk weakening prohibitions under United States and international law against torture and war crimes by questioning the justiciability of a case merely because the case involves the need to define such terms.” Judges Henry Franklin Floyd and Stephanie Dawn Thacker joined Keenan’s opinion. All are Obama-appointees. (RELATED: Court: Gitmo Detainees Can’t Sue Over Torture)

Floyd filed a brief concurrence in which he launched a broadside against John Yoo, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel lawyer who wrote the memorandum advising the Bush administration that it was lawful to authorize enhanced interrogation techniques.

“The fact that the President — let alone a significantly inferior executive officer — opines that certain conduct is lawful does not determine the actual lawfulness of that conduct,” he wrote.

“There is no question that torture is unlawful under domestic, military, and international law. The only issue in this case is whether CACI will be held accountable – or treated with impunity – for its role in torture at Abu Ghraib,” said Baher Azmy, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents the prisoners. “Today’s decision reaffirms the role of the courts to assess illegality, including torture, and we are optimistic this case will finally move forward and our clients will have their day in court.”

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