Top US officials can't be sued for post-9/11 abuse

By James Vicini
Mon May 18, 2009 11:31am EDT

WASHINGTON, May 18 (Reuters) - The Supreme Court rejected on Monday a lawsuit by a Pakistani man against a former U.S. attorney general and the FBI director claiming abuse while he was imprisoned in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

By a 5-4 vote, the U.S. high court overturned a ruling that Javaid Iqbal, who was held more than a year after the attacks, could sue former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

The decision appeared to be narrow, limited to the facts of the case, although it could be cited as precedent in other lawsuits.

The civil case involves different legal issues than the recent demands by human rights groups to hold former Bush administration officials accountable for what they describe as torture of terrorism suspects.

Iqbal, a Muslim, said in the lawsuit that he had suffered verbal and physical abuse, including unnecessary strip searches and brutal beatings by guards. He said he had been singled out because of unlawful ethnic and religious discrimination.

Writing for the Supreme Court's conservative majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said Iqbal's lawsuit failed to plead sufficient facts to state a claim for purposeful, unlawful discrimination.

Kennedy also ruled there was insufficient evidence that Ashcroft and Mueller had deprived Iqbal of his clearly established constitutional rights.

In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. authorities detained 762 noncitizens, almost all Muslims or Arabs. Many of those held at the federal prison in Brooklyn suffered abuse, the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general has found.

The Bush administration said that Ashcroft and Mueller have immunity, that they should not be held personally liable and that the lawsuit against them should be dismissed.

Ashcroft and Mueller argued they have qualified legal immunity because any misconduct was done by lower-level officials and they had no personal involvement in or knowledge of the alleged abuse.

The issue before the Supreme Court involved only whether Iqbal's lawsuit against Ashcroft and Mueller could continue and did not address his claims of mistreatment against other lower-ranking current and former government officials.

Iqbal sued about 30 other current or former U.S. government officials, including the warden at the detention facility and the director of the federal Bureau of Prisons. He seeks unspecified damages.

Iqbal was arrested for having false Social Security papers. He pleaded guilty in 2002, was released in 2003 and deported to Pakistan. The lawsuit was filed in 2004.

The U.S. government paid $300,000 to settle with Iqbal's co-plaintiff and fellow detainee Ehab Elmaghraby, an Egyptian.