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Federal Court Rules RFRA Applies to Guantanamo

by Matthew T. Clarke

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. 2000bb, et seq., applied to the detention facilities at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed and Jewel Al-Harith are British nationals who were conducting humanitarian relief in Afghanistan on 9/11. Rasul, Iqbal and Ahmed were captured by General Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord, on November 28, 2001. A month later they were turned over to U.S. authorities in exchange for a bounty. Rasul and Iqbal were tortured and interrogated for two weeks in Afghanistan, then transferred to Gitmo. Ahmed was abused and interrogated in Afghanistan for six weeks and only transferred to Guantanamo after he bent to the pressure and falsely confessed to having ties to Al Qaeda.

Al-Harith was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. They accused him of spying for Britain and tortured him; he was released when the Taliban fell. He then contacted the British embassy seeking evacuation to Britain. Instead, U.S. officials arrested him and, in February 2002, transported him to Gitmo.

Following 9/11, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed a memorandum approving aggressive interrogation methods including forced stress positions for up to four hours, disrobing prisoners, using dogs to intimidate prisoners, 24-hour interrogation sessions, hooding prisoners, shaving prisoners’ hair, isolating prisoners in absolute silence and darkness, and using physical contact. The four men (plaintiffs) were subjected to these interrogation methods.

Rumsfeld’s approval for these methods was withdrawn in April 2003. However, the plaintiffs continued to suffer inhumane treatment after April 2003, including repeated beatings; forced body cavity searches; hours of forced stress positions; lengthy shackling that caused wounds that resulted in permanent scarring; injections of unknown substances into their bodies; being housed in open-sided cramped cages exposed to the weather; being deprived of adequate food, sleep and communication with their families; and harassment and humiliation when they attempted to practice their religion, including forcing them to shave their beards and placing the Koran in the toilet.

After months of mistreatment, Rasul and Iqbal falsely confessed to having ties with Al Qaeda. Regardless, all four plaintiffs were released without charges and allowed to return to the United Kingdom in March 2004.

Plaintiffs filed suit against Rumsfeld and various military officers responsible for Guantanamo, alleging violations of the RFRA, U.S. Constitutional rights and international law. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. The district court had previously ruled that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on the constitutional claims and that the international law claims were not ripe for review because plaintiffs had not first exhausted their administrative remedies with the appropriate federal agency. See: Rasul v. Rumsfeld, 414 F.Supp.2d 26 (D.D.C. 2005). After additional briefing, the court held that the RFRA applies to Guantanamo. Thus, the claims regarding harassment and humiliation when the plaintiffs attempted to practice their religion survived the government’s motion to dismiss.

The court held that the clear language of the RFRA stated that it applied to “each territory and possession of the United States.” The Supreme Court had already held in dicta that Guantanamo was a “territory or possession outside the continental United States” due to the nature of the lease on Guantanamo, which gives the U.S. “plenary and exclusive jurisdiction” but not “ultimate sovereignty” over Guantanamo. This “complete jurisdiction and control” over Guantanamo rendered Guantanamo a possession of the U.S. Thus, the RFRA applied to Guantanamo.

The district court also rejected defendants’ claim that the RFRA applied only to U.S. citizens. It held that the right to be free from the type of religious harassment plaintiffs were subjected to was clearly established in 2002 (when their plight began). The court held that the plaintiffs’ allegations were not novel and constituted blatant and shocking acts against them on account of their religion, thus defeating any defense claim of qualified immunity. Defendants claimed that it was not clearly established that the RFRA applied to Guantanamo; however, this was not sufficient to garner them qualified immunity, as the clear language of the RFRA indicated that it did apply and there were no court rulings questioning that language. Therefore, the defendants’ motion to dismiss was denied with respect to plaintiffs’ RFRA claims. See: Rasul v. Rumsfeld, 433 F.Supp.2d 58 (D.D.C., 2006).

* NOTE: The RFRA was partially struck down by the Supreme Court in City of Boerne v. Flores, 117 S.Ct. 2157 (1997), and has since been replaced by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. 2000cc.

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Related legal case

Rasul v. Rumsfeld