COLUMBIA, S.C. – A man held for years as an "enemy combatant" is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate a lawsuit accusing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other government officials of torturing him in a South Carolina military prison.
The American Civil Liberties Union is representing Jose Padilla in his appeal of a decision of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in January that Congress, not the court system, has jurisdiction over military detention cases.
The appellate panel also found the judiciary should defer to Congress and the executive branch in cases such as Padilla's because litigation could potentially compromise military operations and national security issues.
Padilla had argued that he was entitled to sue Rumsfeld, current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former brig commander Catherine T. Hanft and several other officials because the government deprived him of other ways to seek remedies for his treatment, even under military code. He also argued that Congress never specifically barred civilian U.S. citizens deemed "enemy combatants" from pursuing civil actions, as it did for non-citizens.
His attorneys claimed Rumsfeld and his subordinates developed the "enemy combatant" status as an end-run around suspects' constitutional protections, and that they approved harsh interrogation procedures used against Padilla and others.
An attorney for Hanft did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the latest petition, filed Monday. David B. Rivkin Jr., who represented Rumsfeld, said he was confident the appellate decision would be upheld.
"This lawsuit is yet another example of 'lawfare' that seeks to harass and distract those officials, military and civilian, responsible for ensuring our national security," Rivkin said.
Padilla, a U.S. citizen, sued over his treatment in 2007, claiming he was unconstitutionally detained and tortured in the Navy brig in Charleston after his 2002 arrest on suspicion of collaborating to build a radioactive bomb. Government officials labeled him an "enemy combatant" and transferred him from a civilian jail to the Charleston brig, where guards and interrogators imposed conditions similar to those at the Guantanamo prison in Cuba.
During the first two of the nearly four years he was held at the Brig, Padilla's attorneys claim he was kept in a blacked-out isolation cell, injected with truth serums and shackled for hours "in excruciating 'stress' positions." His handlers also threatened to kill Padilla or transfer him to Guantanamo, his attorneys wrote.
In their petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Padilla's attorneys argue that, while Congress had come up with ways to deal with enemy combatants, there were no standards for handling those like Padilla, who are also U.S. citizens. It's not known when the court will decide whether to consider the case.
"It is hard to conceive of a more profound constitutional violation than the torture of a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil," they wrote.
"Executive officials have claimed immunity for the torture of a U.S. citizen in South Carolina. In averting its eyes from that misconduct, the court of appeals relegated the defense of a core individual liberty to the political branches alone. Our system of checks and balances cannot tolerate that result."
The government ultimately dropped the dirty-bomb charge against Padilla. Officials transferred him to the civilian court system, where he was convicted of supporting terrorism in Kosovo, Bosnia and Chechnya.
Padilla is currently serving a 17-year sentence in a federal prison in Colorado while he appeals that case. He is scheduled to be released in 2022.
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