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Federal appeals court hears arguments in Padilla unlawful detention suit

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] heard arguments Wednesday in an appeal by US citizen and convicted terrorist Jose Padilla [JURIST news archive] to reinstate his unlawful detention suit against several government officials. Padilla, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website], filed an action against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other government officials, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics [opinion], claiming that his detention as an enemy combatant was unlawful and that he was subjected to torture, denied communication with his family or lawyers, denied ability to practice his religion and denied appropriate medical care. Padilla's suit was dismissed [JURIST report] in February by the US District Court for the District of South Carolina [official website], which ruled that defendants had qualified immunity because the law did not expressly prohibit the torture of an American citizen classified as an enemy combatant. The appeal claims that the district court erred [JURIST report] in finding special factors precluding a Bivens remedy and finding the defendants entitled to qualified immunity. ACLU National Security Project litigation director Ben Wizner said [press release] Wednesday:

The defendants in this case seized Jose Padilla from a civilian jail and hid him away in a military brig precisely to keep the courts from interfering with the terrible things they were doing to him. By granting the defendants legal immunity for their cruel acts, the district court vindicated their deliberate efforts to circumvent the Constitution. ... If the law does not protect Jose Padilla—an American citizen arrested on American soil and tortured in an American prison—it protects no one.
Padilla was was arrested in 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and subsequently detained as an enemy combatant. He was convicted on terrorism charges in 2007 and sentenced [JURIST reports] to 17 years in prison.

In the last several years there have been several suits brought against officials in the Bush administration. In August, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit [official website] ruled [JURIST report] that a torture suit against Rumsfeld by two American citizens can proceed under the cause of action recognized in Bivens. Also in August, the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] ruled that Rumsfeld could be sued [JURIST report] by a former US military contractor who claims he was tortured while imprisoned in Iraq. In early 2011, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] upheld the dismissal [JURIST report] of a torture suit against Rumsfeld brought by Afghan and Iraqi citizens alleging they were illegally detained and tortured. Also this year, the US Supreme Court ruled [opinion, PDF] that former US Attorney General John Ashcroft is immune from suit [JURIST report] and was entitled to absolute immunity because he did not clearly violate any established law.

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