20 Jun

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective

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World Politics

United States

Supreme court rules Bush officials cannot be sued over 9/11 detentions

Former attorney general and FBI chief were accused of racial profiling

Detainees said they were unlawfully held and abused in immigration custody

The lawsuit sought to hold former US attorney general and ex-FBI chief Robert Mueller, among others, responsible for racial and religious profiling.

The lawsuit sought to hold former US attorney general and ex-FBI chief Robert Mueller, among others, responsible for racial and religious profiling. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The supreme court on Monday handed a victory to George W Bush’s attorney general, FBI chief and other officials, ruling they cannot be sued over the treatment of detainees, mainly Muslims, who were rounded up in New York after the September 11 attacks.

In a 4-2 decision with three justices not taking part, the court reversed a lower court decision that said the long-running suit could proceed against former attorney general John Ashcroft, former FBI director Robert Mueller and others. Mueller is now the special counsel investigating possible collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign team in the 2016 US presidential race.

The civil rights lawsuit sought to hold the former officials responsible for racial and religious profiling and abuse in detention that the plaintiffs said they endured after being swept up following the 2001 attacks by al-Qaida militants on the US.

Writing for the court, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy said the allegations were serious and that the supreme court did not condone the treatment of the detainees. But, Kennedy said, the only issue for the court was whether Congress had authorized such lawsuits against public officials. It had not, the justices concluded.

“We are very disappointed with the court’s dismissal of our clients’ claims,” said Rachel Meeropol, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, in an emailed statement.

“The court’s decision allows for high-level officials to violate the constitution without fear of personal accountability – a dangerous message in this time of rampant state-sponsored discrimination against Muslim and immigrant communities.”

The court sent one part of the case back to lower courts to determine if claims against Dennis Hasty, the warden in charge of the detention facility in Brooklyn where the detainees were held, could go forward.

The suit was filed by a group of Muslim, Arab and south Asian non-US citizens who, their lawyers said, were held as terrorism suspects based on their race, religion, ethnicity and immigration status and abused in detention before being deported.

The lawsuit claimed the senior Bush administration officials were liable because they made the policy decisions that led to the round-up and confinement of the plaintiffs.

Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. Breyer took the relatively unusual step of reading his dissent from the bench, saying such lawsuits should be allowed to go forward in order “to provide appropriate compensation for those deprived of important constitutional rights and in times of special national-security need”.

The plaintiffs were charged with only civil immigration violations. But they said they were subjected at Brooklyn’s metropolitan detention center to 23-hours-a-day solitary confinement, strip searches, sleep deprivation, beatings and other abuses and denied the ability to practice their religion.

They said their rights under the US constitution to due process and equal protection under the law were violated.

During the US justice department’s massive investigation after the 9/11 attacks, certain immigrants in the country illegally were detained until being cleared of involvement.

The New York-based secnd US circuit court of appeals ruled that Ashcroft, Mueller and former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner James Ziglar could be sued, based on a 1971 supreme court precedent. In 2013, a judge dismissed the claims but allowed some against detention facility wardens.

Government lawyers have said there is no proof Ashcroft or Mueller personally condoned any potential unconstitutional actions.

The plaintiffs included Benamar Benatta, an Algerian Muslim who was seeking refugee status in Canada, and Ahmed Khalifa, an Egyptian Muslim who said he was on vacation.

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Ochgoro Somra and her children – Farida, four, left, Siragi, two, Mondoro Farida, four, and Shahid, three – lived in Bidi Bidi before it filled up with arrivals from South Sudan. ‘The refugees are innocent civilians coming to us for protection from the insecurity in their own country. I am glad Uganda can welcome them here,’ Somra says. ‘Initially, we were here more or less alone. Now we have been surrounded by South Sudanese refugees. The children have made new friends. They even start picking up some words in South Sudanese languages’

UN figures show a record 65.6 million people were displaced in 2016, more than the population of Britain, and that half of all refugees are children

The number of people forced to flee their homes by war and persecution has risen to record levels for the third year running, with 65.6 million people displaced around the world – more than the population of Britain.

The latest annual global trends study from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reports that one person was forced to leave their home every three seconds in 2016. The number of people displaced last year was 300,000 higher than in 2015.

According to the report, refugee numbers were the highest ever in 2016, at 22.5 million, with the majority of people coming from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

Half of all refugees were children.

A further 2.8 million people sought asylum. Germany, which received 722,400 asylum claims, was the largest recipient of new applications, followed by the US, Italy and Turkey. At least 75,000 asylum claims were received from an unaccompanied child.

The vast majority of displaced people, 40.3 million, left their home but did not cross the border of their country. Syria, Iraq and Colombia – which has endured decades of conflict – had the largest number of internally displaced people.

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the number of displaced people was unacceptable. “It speaks louder than ever to the need for solidarity and common purpose in preventing and resolving crises, and ensuring together that the world’s refugees, internally displaced and asylum seekers are properly protected and cared for while solutions are pursued,” he said. “We have to do better for these people.”

While the conflict in Syria was the greatest source of newly recognised refugees in 2016, at 824,000, the UNHCR report points to the crises in sub-Saharan Africa as a major concern.

The fastest-growing refugee population was spurred by the crisis in South Sudan, where peace efforts broke down in July 2016. This group, which was mostly children, grew by 64% during the second half of 2016, from 854,100 to more than 1.4 million. Elsewhere, large numbers of refugees fled Burundi (121,700 newly recognised refugees), Iraq (81,900), Eritrea (69,600), Afghanistan (69,500), and Nigeria (64,700).

“We are in an extremely difficult situation and ultimately the solution has to come from international states upholding their obligations and supporting refugees, but also helping to bring crises to a close,” said Matthew Saltmarsh, spokesman for the UNHCR.

The vast majority of refugees, 84%, were living in low- or middle-income countries, while one in three (4.9 million people) were in the least developed countries. Turkey continued to host the largest refugee population, with 2.9 million refugees at the end of 2016, followed by Pakistan, Lebanon and Iran. Lebanon, where one in six people is a refugee, continued to host the largest number of refugees relative to its national population.

Uganda experienced a dramatic increase in its refugee population, which doubled in 2016 to 940,800, with most new arrivals coming from South Sudan. Significant numbers of refugees in Uganda also came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (205,400), Burundi (41,000), Somalia (30,700), and Rwanda (15,200).

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