(from Reuters, February 17, 2011)
By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) – A federal judge in South Carolina on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit brought by a U.S. citizen claiming he was illegally detained and tortured in a military brig after being convicted of terrorism conspiracy.
Federal judge Richard Mark Gergel ruled that Jose Padilla had no right to sue for constitutional violations.
Padilla, now serving a 17-year sentence in a maximum-security prison in Colorado, filed the lawsuit against former and current government officials, including former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Barack Obama’s current holder of the post, Robert Gates.
In his ruling, Gergel said there was no “clearly established” federal law on the issue of the military detention of so-called enemy combatants.
“A trial on the merits would be an international spectacle with Padilla, a convicted terrorist, summoning America’s present and former leaders to a federal courthouse to answer his charges,” he wrote.
Gergel added the courts were only beginning to sort out the legal rights of this category of detainees.
“The Court finds that the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity regarding all claims of alleged constitutional violations arising out of Padilla’s detention as an enemy combatant,” he said.
Padilla was taken into custody in Chicago in May 2002 after arriving at O’Hare International Airport from Pakistan via Switzerland.
President George W. Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant a month later, saying he possessed valuable intelligence about the personnel and activities of al Qaeda.
Padilla was taken to a South Carolina Navy brig and held there for more than three years. His lawyers allege he was waterboarded, kept in isolation and darkness and subjected to constant noise.
Padilla was eventually convicted in 2007 in a Miami court in a case that some legal critics said highlighted the Bush administration’s aggressive moves to hold terrorist suspects for years without formal charges.
He is appealing his sentence.
Ben Wizner, the litigation director at the American Civil Liberties Union, called Thursday’s ruling “troubling.”
“The court today held that Donald Rumsfeld is above the law and Jose Padilla is beneath it,” he said in a statement.
“But if the law does not protect Jose Padilla, it protects none of us, and the executive branch can simply label citizens enemies of the state and strip them of all rights, including the absolute right not to be tortured.”