Former top U.S. officials can be held liable for the abuse of hundreds of detainees rounded up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for minor immigration violations, a federal appeals court said Wednesday, citing the importance of the rule of law even in times of crisis.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 ruling that former Attorney General John Ashcroft, ex-FBI Director Robert Mueller and the former head of an agency that policed immigration may have exceeded the constitutional limits of their authority in the quest to find terrorists responsible for 9/11.

"Detaining individuals as if they were terrorists, in the most restrictive conditions of confinement available, simply because these individuals were, or appeared to be, Arab or Muslim exceeds those limits," according to the majority opinion co-written by Judges Rosemary Pooler and Richard C. Wesley.

"It might well be that national security concerns motivated the defendants to take action, but that is of little solace to those who felt the brunt of that decision. The suffering endured by those who were imprisoned merely because they were caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9/11 is not without a remedy," the 2nd Circuit said.

In an opinion that was both concurring and dissenting, Judge Reena Raggi said Congress rather than the judiciary should decide whether those who were detained can sue executive policymakers as individuals for money damages.

The opinions stemmed from a 2002 lawsuit seeking unspecified damages. It claimed that federal officials violated rights by imprisoning detainees under harsh conditions on the basis of their race and religion after calls for help from the public prompted 96,000 tips to the FBI from civilians nationwide in the week after the attacks.

More than 80 men among 762 detainees across the country were jailed at a Brooklyn federal lockup, many of them charged only with minor civil immigration violations. In all, the Justice Department has said 491 detainees were arrested in the New York area, with many held in a New Jersey facility.

Government lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rachel Meeropol, a Center for Constitutional Rights attorney working on the case, called the ruling a "huge victory."

"I think the public needs to fully grapple with what happened after 9/11 in their name," she said. "These were men who were swept up off the streets of New York and New Jersey and disappeared. ... They were treated as terrorists for months until cleared of any connection to terrorism and then deported. This is a stain on our country's history that has never been fully addressed."

Meeropol said there are now eight plaintiffs, including two who were named when the lawsuit was first filed in Brooklyn federal court. Five original plaintiffs settled in November 2009 for a total of $1.26 million. The money was shared according to the length of time they were incarcerated, she said. All were deported, and most of them are banned from returning.