WASHINGTON -- A lawsuit that seeks to hold Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others directly responsible for the abuse and torture of detainees in U.S. military custody will be heard in a federal court in the District of Columbia, a seven-judge panel ruled yesterday. The lawsuit, which was the first to name Secretary Rumsfeld in the ongoing torture scandal in Afghanistan and Iraq, was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights First on behalf of eight Afghan and Iraqi men who were tortured while they were held in U.S. detention facilities.
"This brings us one step closer to proving in court that the legal responsibility for the systemic abuse and torture of detainees in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan lies at the top of the chain of command and not at the bottom," said Lucas Guttentag, lead counsel in the lawsuit and director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.
In transferring the case to the federal court in the District of Columbia, the seven-judge panel, known as the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, consolidated for pretrial proceedings the suit against Secretary Rumsfeld with three separate complaints filed by the ACLU against Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinsky, and Col. Thomas Pappas. The decision to transfer the case to the District of Columbia was opposed by government lawyers representing the senior military commanders who argued that the cases should be heard in the Eastern District of Virginia.
"We welcome this decision and hope that we are closer to having a federal court reverse policy decisions that have led to torture and abuse," said Michael Posner, Executive Director of Human Rights First.
The case will be heard by Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan.
The groups are joined as co-counsel in the lawsuit by Rear Admiral John D. Hutson (Ret. USN), former Judge Advocate General of the Navy; Brigadier General James Cullen (Ret. USA), former Chief Judge (IMA) of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals; and Bill Lann Lee, Chair of the Human Rights Practice Group at Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, LLP and former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice. Admiral Hutson and General Cullen are "of counsel" to Human Rights First.