No Comment — February 17, 2010, 11:50 am

Court Dismisses Suit Over Gitmo Deaths

Yesterday Judge Ellen Huvelle dismissed a lawsuit brought on behalf of the survivors of two of the three Guantánamo prisoners whose mysterious deaths on June 9, 2006 the United States government has labeled “suicides.” In “The Guantánamo ‘Suicides’: A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle,” I presented evidence disputing the government’s claims, starting with the eye-witness accounts of U.S. soldiers on guard duty that evening.

In the lawsuit, the families of Yasser Al-Zahrani and Salah Ali Abdullah Ahmed Al-Salami sought damages under the Alien Tort Claims Act, arguing that the two prisoners had been wrongfully imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to cruel, unusual, and inhuman punishment. In dismissing the suit, Judge Huvelle did not parse the claims brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of the families of the deceased prisoners. Rather, she concluded that Congress had stripped the court of jurisdiction to hear and resolve such cases when it enacted the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

Pete Yost of the Associated Press reports:

The judge said the two detainees were properly determined by the U.S. military to be enemy combatants. Citing an appeals court decision, Huvelle said judicial involvement in the “delicate area” of how detainees are treated could undermine military and diplomatic efforts by the U.S. government on the terrorism front.

Al-Zahrani, 22 years old when he died, was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001 and he was 17 years old when he was transferred to Guantanamo in 2002, according to the suit by the men’s families. Al-Salami was arrested by local forces in Pakistan in March 2002.

Judge Huvelle’s conclusion that the detainees were “properly determined” to be “enemy combatants” runs contrary to the evidence. Both men were turned over to U.S. forces for bounty payments, and a thorough investigation of their cases by American military intelligence concluded that there was no meaningful evidence to link either man to either Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Al-Zahrani had been placed on a list to be released back to Saudi Arabia, immediately behind Mani Al-Utaybi, who also died under still unexplained circumstances on June 9, 2006, at approximately the same time as Al-Zahrani and Al-Salami, according to pathologists.

Pardiss Kebriaei, attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who brought the suit on behalf of the deceased prisoners’ families, stated:

These men were tortured and detained for four years on the basis of an arbitrary designation of “enemy combatant” and died in the custody of the United States military. They and their families should have the right to have their claims heard at the very least. The court’s decision is all the more troubling in light of recent information that seriously undermines the official account of how these men died, and underlines the need for transparency and accountability even more.

The decision to dismiss the cases follows from a Bush Administration effort to block judicial examination of any case involving the death or mistreatment of prisoners at Guantánamo, which was incorporated in the Military Commissions Act of 2006 as one of the last measures adopted by the G.O.P.-controlled Congress following elections that delivered control to the Democrats. Although President Obama, as an Illinois senator, voted against the act and joined in calls for its repeal, his administration has yet to take steps to overturn it. The measure, as applied by Judge Huvelle, placed the United States in breach of its obligations under the Convention Against Torture. Article 14 of the Convention provides:

Each State Party shall ensure in its legal system that the victim of an act of torture obtains redress and has an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible. In the event of the death of the victim as a result of an act of torture, his dependents shall be entitled to compensation.

For readers in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois: I’ll be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders” today at 3:00 CT to discuss the article and Judge Huvelle’s decision. Tune in and check here for the Wisconsin Public Radio station closest to you. Update: You can download a podcast from the program here.

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