Federal District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle declined a motion (PDF) to reopen a lawsuit by relatives of two of the Guantánamo prisoners who died on June 29, 2006. The Defense Department has claimed that three deaths that evening were suicides and that the prisoners all died in their cells on the A Block of Camp Delta. In “The Guantánamo ‘Suicides’: A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle,” I mustered evidence that the official story is improbable and that the deaths most likely occurred at a secret facility on the outskirts of Camp America known to perimeter guards as “Camp No.” After publication of the article, the claimants sought to reopen the case based on the discovery of new evidence, relying on my article.
While stating “it is, as plaintiffs argue, ‘disturb[ing]’ that defendants allegedly ‘fought to keep secret virtually all information concerning the cause and circumstances of Al-Zahrani and Al-Salami’s deaths’ and that ‘details of an elaborate, high-level cover-up of likely homicide at a ‘black site’ at Guantanamo’ are now emerging,” the court’s decision turned entirely on technical points surrounding its jurisdiction over civil claims emanating from Guantánamo. Even if the prisoners had been the victims of intentional homicide carried out on written orders, a federal court would have no jurisdiction to entertain civil claims brought by their survivors against U.S. government actors, Judge Huvelle reasons, because “even seriously criminal and violent conduct can still fall within the scope of a defendant’s employment.” “Courts must leave to Congress the judgment whether a damage remedy should exist,” Judge Huvelle wrote.
The Justice Department retreated from its prior claims about “suicides” in defending the motion, though this is only because it was seeking resolution on purely technical, jurisdictional grounds, and it wanted to avoid discussion of the unpleasant facts surrounding the deaths.
General Talal Al-Zahrani, a retired Saudi police officer and, as the father of the deceased Yasser Al-Zahrani, a plaintiff in the suit, said “the courts should be investigating my son’s death and holding those responsible accountable. President Obama should be defending human rights and the democratic values the U.S. preaches to the world, rather than going to court to defend the lies and gruesome crimes of the Bush administration.”
The ruling is ultimately not surprising, because it is just what current precedent in the District of Columbia Circuit would indicate. But this is another case in which the doors of justice have been firmly slammed in the faces of those seeking redress for serious wrongdoing in American detention operations. Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a state party, require the United States to provide enforceable remedies for violations to aggrieved parties. Judge Huvelle’s decision, combined with Congress’s failure to provide any alternative mode of redress, has placed the United States in breach, once more, of its treaty commitments.