WASHINGTON - A federal appeals court ruled yesterday against four British men who contend they were systematically tortured and their religious rights abused throughout their two-year detention at Guantanamo Bay.
In a suit against former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and individual US military officials, the four men argued that the defendants had engaged in criminal conduct.
The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled 3-0 that the men should have invoked a different law when they filed their lawsuit.
"Criminal conduct is not per se outside the scope of employment," a requirement for bringing a claim under the Alien Tort Statute, said the decision by appeals Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush.
The four men challenged the methods Rumsfeld and the military officers used, but the former detainees don't allege that the defendants "acted as rogue officials or employees who implemented a policy of torture for reasons unrelated to the gathering of intelligence," the court said.
"Therefore, the alleged tortious conduct was incidental to the defendants' legitimate employment duties," the ruling added.
The four British men also brought constitutional claims and claims under the Geneva Conventions and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Rejecting all of the men's allegations, the appeals court overturned the only part of a lower court decision that hadn't already been dismissed. That was the alleged violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"Because the plaintiffs are aliens and were located outside sovereign United States territory at the time their alleged RFRA claim arose, they do not fall with the definition of 'person,' " the court ruled. The law provides that the "government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion."
Eighty people were arrested at the Supreme Court yesterday in a protest calling for the shutdown of the Guantanamo prison.
The ruling came on the sixth anniversary of Guantanamo Bay being used to house detainees gathered from around the world as part of the US war on suspected terrorists.
The other two judges in the case are Janice Rogers Brown, an appointee of President Bush; and A. Raymond Randolph, an appointee of Bush's father.
The defendants in the case include retired General Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The four who sued are Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed, and Jamal Al-Harith, all British citizens and residents. They were sent back to Great Britain in 2004.
The appeals court ruling comes at a time when the Supreme Court is considering whether other prisoners still detained at Guantanamo Bay have a right to mount a challenge in US courts to their confinement.
Rasul, Iqbal, and Ahmed allege they traveled to Afghanistan from Pakistan to provide humanitarian relief the month after the Sept. 11 attacks. Al-Harith says he traveled to Pakistan the same month to attend a religious retreat.
All four wound up at Guantanamo Bay. There, they allege, they were abused and harassed while practicing their religion.