In Padilla ruling, Fourth Circuit Court ignores U.S. international obligations

Padilla being subjected to sensory deprivation while being taken to the dentist in 2006 (New York Times)

In a decision with international implications, a U.S. court has demonstrated a decided indifference to the United States’ international obligations on matters of human rights. On Monday the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond, Va., ruled that the military policies of detention without charge and the harsh interrogation methods established by the Bush administration and continued in part by the Obama administration cannot be challenged in damage lawsuits in federal courts.

Issues raised by the case regarding the detention of terrorist suspects – in particular the treatment of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen held for nearly four years without charge as an “enemy combatant” – have been addressed specifically by international bodies to which the U.S. belongs, but these concerns did not factor in to the judges’ deliberations.

In dismissing the Padilla case, the court declared that under the Constitution, the making of counter-terrorism policy is entrusted solely to Congress and the President, and the courts may not “trespass” on this authority. The court therfore threw out the lawsuit brought by Padilla, who was seeking damages of one dollar from each of the defendants: Donald H. Rumsfeld, Former Secretary of Defense; Catherine T. Hanft, Former Commander Consolidated Brig; Melanie A. Marr, Former Commander Consolidated Brig; Lowell E. Jacoby, Vice Admiral, Former Director Defense Intelligence Agency; Paul Wolfowitz, Former Deputy Secretary Of Defense; William Haynes, Former General Counsel Department of Defense; Leon E. Panetta, Secretary of Defense.

Padilla had contended that he was entitled to sue the defendants because the government deprived him of other ways to seek remedies for his treatment, even under military code.

In its ruling, however, the court recognized the President’s purported absolute authority to hold terrorist suspects – even U.S. citizens – indefinitely and incommunicado as enemy combatants:

On June 9, 2002, acting pursuant to his authority under the AUMF [2001 Authorization of Military Force], President George W. Bush issued an order to defendant Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, to detain Padilla as an enemy combatant, the President having determined that Padilla possessed vital intelligence and posed an ongoing threat to the national security of the United States.

That day, Padilla was removed from civilian custody and transferred to the Naval Consolidated Brig at Charleston, South Carolina. While in military custody, Padilla claims that he was repeatedly abused, threatened with torture, deprived of basic necessities, and unjustifiably cut off from access to the outside world. Over time, these conditions were relaxed, and he was allowed monitored meetings with his attorneys.

The ruling seemed to downplay Padilla’s actual allegations though, which are not simply that he was “threatened with torture,” but in fact that he was tortured. According to his attorneys, Padilla was routinely mistreated and abused in ways designed to cause pain, anguish, depression and ultimately the loss of will to live.

“The extended torture visited upon Mr. Padilla has left him damaged, both mentally and physically,” said a court filing by Orlando do Campo, one of Padilla’s lawyers. The filing says that Padilla was subjected to sleep deprivation and extremes of heat and cold, and forced to stand for extended periods in painful “stress positions.”

His lawyers have also claimed that Padilla was forced to take LSD and PCP to act as truth serums during his interrogations.

As forensic psychiatrist Dr. Angela Hegarty, who interviewed Jose Padilla for 22 hours to determine the state of his mental health, told Democracy Now in 2007:

What happened at the brig was essentially the destruction of a human being’s mind. That’s what happened at the brig. His personality was deconstructed and reformed.

And essentially, like many abuse victims, whether it’s torture survivors or battered women or even children who are abused by parents, as long as the parents or the abuser is in control in their minds, essentially they identify with the primary aims of the abuser. And all abusers, whoever they are, have one absolute requirement, and that is that you keep their secret. I mean, it’s common knowledge that people who abuse children or women will say, “Look at what you made me do,” putting the blame on the victim, trying to instill guilt. “People will judge you. People will think you’re crazy if you tell them about this. You will be an enemy. You will be seen as an enemy. You will be seen as a bad person if this comes out. There will be dire and terrible consequences, not only for you.” Jose was very, very concerned that if torture allegations were made on his behalf, that somehow it would it interfere with the government’s ability to detain people at Guantanamo, and this was something he couldn’t sign onto. He was very identified with the goals of the government.

Dr. Hegarty commented specifically on the psychological effect of the prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation that Padilla was subjected to:

This was the first time I ever met anybody who had been isolated for such an extraordinarily long period of time. I mean, the sensory deprivation studies, for example, tell us that without sleep, especially, people will develop psychotic symptoms, hallucinations, panic attacks, depression, suicidality within days. And here we had a man who had been in this situation, utterly dependent on his interrogators, who didn’t treat him all that nicely, for years. And apart from –- the only people I ever met who had such a protracted experience were people who were in detention camps overseas, that would come close, but even then they weren’t subjected to the sensory deprivation. So, yes, he was somewhat of a unique case in that regard.

Glossing over the specifics of Padilla’s four years of mistreatment, the Fourth Circuit’s decision instead treated these issues as mere policy decisions that were made expeditiously by the Executive and Legislative Branches – decisions that the Judiciary constitutionally has no say in.

The ruling makes clear the court’s opinion that the Judicial Branch has no competence to inject itself into matters that pertain to Congress’s war-making authority or the President’s powers as Commander-in-Chief, even when constitutional rights of U.S. citizens are involved:

Special factors do counsel judicial hesitation in implying causes of action for enemy combatants held in military detention. First, the Constitution delegates authority over military affairs to Congress and to the President as Commander in Chief. It contemplates no comparable role for the judiciary. Second, judicial review of military decisions would stray from the traditional subjects of judicial competence.

The court noted that:

Padilla’s complaint seeks quite candidly to have the judiciary review and disapprove sensitive military decisions made after extensive deliberations within the executive branch as to what the law permitted, what national security required, and how best to reconcile competing values. It takes little enough imagination to understand that a judicially devised damages action would expose past executive deliberations affecting sensitive matters of national security to the prospect of searching judicial scrutiny. It would affect future discussions as well, shadowed as they might be by the thought that those involved would face prolonged civil litigation and potential personal liability.

Further,

This is a case in which the political branches, exercising powers explicitly assigned them by our Constitution, formulated policies with profound implications for national security. One may agree or not agree with those policies. One may debate whether they were or were not the most effective counterterrorism strategy. But the forum for such debates is not the civil cause of action pressed in the case at bar.

So, essentially, the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond, Va., has washed the Judiciary’s hands of any responsibility in determining the constitutionality of any treatment of U.S. citizens who are designated by the Executive Branch as “enemy combatants.” Anything goes if the government calls you a terrorist, according to the court.

As Padilla’s attorney, Ben Wizner, said in a statement Monday:

Today is a sad day for the rule of law and for those who believe that the courts should protect American citizens from torture by their own government. By dismissing this lawsuit, the appeals court handed the government a blank check to commit any abuse in the name of national security, even the brutal torture of a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil. This impunity is not only anathema to a democracy governed by laws, but contrary to history’s lesson that in times of fear our values are a strength, not a hindrance.

It could also be pointed out that since the Constitution provides that treaties entered into by the United States are “the supreme law of the land,” the court has issued the U.S. government a blank check to disregard this clause and violate international treaties at will, in particular the  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the United States in 1992.

As Padilla was held in military custody for nearly four years without charge or trial, it appears the U.S. has violated of Article 9 of the ICCPR, which states:

1. Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.

2. Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.

3. Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial, at any other stage of the judicial proceedings, and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgement.

4. Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.

By denying Padilla a right to compensation in civil courts, the Fourth Circuit appears to have also overlooked this provision of the ICCPR: “Anyone who has been the victim of unlawful arrest or detention shall have an enforceable right to compensation.”

As a party to the Covenant, the U.S. is required to submit a report to the UN Human Rights Committee every five years on its compliance with the Covenant’s provisions.

The last report submitted by the United States – in 2005 – was seven years overdue. Regarding the matter of indefinite detention, the 2005 report pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has stated “that the United States is entitled to detain enemy combatants, even American citizens, until the end of hostilities, in order to prevent the enemy combatants from returning to the field of battle and again taking up arms.”

The U.S. asserted that “the detention of such individuals is such a fundamental and accepted incident of war that it is part of the ‘necessary and appropriate’ force that Congress authorized the President to use against nations, organizations, or persons associated with the September 11 terrorist attacks.”

The Human Rights Committee objected to this “restrictive interpretation made by the State party of its obligations under the Covenant,” and urged the U.S. to “review its approach and interpret the Covenant in good faith, in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to its terms in their context, including subsequent practice, and in the light of its object and purpose.”

The HRC had particularly harsh words for the U.S.’s indefinite detention policies: “The State party [the U.S.] should ensure that its counter-terrorism measures are in full conformity with the Covenant and in particular that the legislation adopted in this context is limited to crimes that would justify being assimilated to terrorism, and the grave consequences associated with it.”

The Committee reminded the United States of its obligations under the Covenant to both prosecute those responsible for using torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and to provide compensation to the victims of such policies:

The State party should conduct prompt and independent investigations into all allegations concerning suspicious deaths,  torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment inflicted by its personnel (including commanders) as well as contract employees, in detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, Iraq and other overseas locations.  The State party should ensure that those responsible are prosecuted and punished in accordance with the gravity of the crime.  The State party should adopt all necessary measures to prevent the recurrence of such behaviors, in particular by providing adequate training and clear guidance to its personnel (including commanders) and contract employees, about their respective obligations and responsibilities, in line with articles 7 and 10 of the Covenant.  During the course of any legal proceedings, the State party should also refrain from relying on evidence obtained by treatment incompatible with article 7.  The Committee wishes to be informed about the measures taken by the State party to ensure the respect of the right to reparation for the victims.

By dismissing Padilla’s lawsuit, the Fourth Circuit Court has essentially done the opposite of what the UN Human Rights Committee has recommended to bring the U.S. in compliance with the ICCPR regarding its detention policies. The court has ensured, at least for now, that the right of reparations for the victims of U.S. detention and torture policies will remain unrecognized by the United States. It has ensured that the U.S. will remain in violation of its obligations under international law.

In this video, Padilla’s mother, Estela Lebron, discusses the treatment of her son by the U.S. government:

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