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Legal Theory

Religion Statute May Allow Gitmo Claims

Posted Sep 17, 2007 10:48 AM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Four former Guantanamo Bay military prison detainees who claim American officials abused them there haven't had any luck trying to sue the U.S. government over alleged constitutional rights violations. But redress may be possible under a 1993 statute that says the government must have a compelling reason for infringing on an individual's religious practice.

The case brought by Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed and Jamal al-Harith under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has so far survived dismissal, unlike other statutory and constitutional claims made in federal court in over their alleged treatment at Gitmo, reports the Chicago Tribune. As of Friday, the validity of their cause of action under the statute was being argued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. If the appellate panel allows the case to proceed, "the United States will find itself dragged into unexplored legal territory," as the newspaper puts it.

The plaintiffs are four British nationals held at Gitmo two years before they were determined not a national security threat and released in 2004. Meanwhile, they say, they were beaten, deprived of food and sleep and shackled in painful positions, even though they contend they weren't members of any terrorist group. Most important, from the standpoint of their religious freedom case, however, they say guards mistreated them by interfering with their Muslim religious practices, tossing a copy of the Quran into a toilet bucket and interrupting their prayers, the Tribune reports.

The Pentagon denies the alleged toilet incident, but admits that the Quran was inadvertently mishandled. It contends, though, that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act doesn't apply to aliens. Also, like other claims, those made under this statute should be dismissed because the government can't be sued for official actions taken during wartime, the government argues.

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