WASHINGTON – The US Supreme Court will hear a case Wednesday on whether cabinet-level officials could be held accountable for controversial tactics President George W. Bush ordered as part of the US-led "war on terror."
Former attorney general John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller have sought immunity from the charges in a lawsuit filed by Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani national.
Iqbal was among more than 700 Arab and South Asian Muslim men from the New York City area rounded up after the September 11, 2001 attacks. While they were all eventually charged with immigration violations or minor crimes, none was linked to terrorism.
In his lawsuit, Iqbal alleges that Ashcroft and Mueller targeted the men for investigation and punitive detention, sidestepping procedural protections usually granted to such detainees.
Iqbal, who was held at a maximum security section of a Brooklyn federal prison, says he was subjected to harsh treatment and discrimination and that federal officials classified him as a "high interest" suspect because he was a Muslim from Pakistan.
A June 2003 report by the Department of Justice inspector general found "significant problems" in the treatment of detainees like Iqbal.
Iqbal's lawsuit says Ashcroft and Mueller approved the policy of holding post-September 11 detainees in restrictive confinement.
Ashcroft was among those who "willfully and maliciously approved of, endorsed, and/or ordered that these searches take place" and "knew of, condoned, and willfully and maliciously agreed to subject (Iqbal) to unreasonable, unnecessary and extreme strip and body-cavity searches," according to the suit.
A federal court and an appeals court refused to remove the cabinet-level officials from the case.
Lawyers for Ashcroft and Mueller say their clients were not personally involved in the detainee mistreatment and did not know about Iqbal.
"A complaint must allege sufficient facts to cross the line between possibility and plausibility," Solicitor General Gregory Barre wrote in his brief to the court.
Barre says Iqbal's lawyers have failed to provide enough evidence linking Ashcroft and Mueller to Iqbal's mistreatment.
Alexander Reinert, who will argue for Iqbal, challenges the government's position as an attempt to avoid responsibility by high-ranking officials for mistreatment okayed by the Bush Administration.
"The government's position will have the practical effect of ensuring that these officials will never be held accountable for unconstitutional conduct," Reinert said in a statement.
Some critics have assailed Ashcroft over the Patriot Act, legislation that broadened law enforcement powers after September 11, saying it did so at the expense of civil liberties.
Iqbal claims that during his five-month confinement he was held 23 hours a day in a constantly lit cell where the air conditioning was turned on in the winter and the heat was turned in the summer. He says he was also beaten and strip-searched.
Upon release in 2003, he had lost nearly 20 kilograms (44 pounds). He was then deported to Pakistan with no terror-related charges filed against him.
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