A federal judge is allowing four former detainees at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to pursue a lawsuit accusing their U.S. captors of violating their religious rights.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina rejected the Justice Department's argument that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was meant to apply only to government action in the continental United States. The 1993 law restricts government officers from taking action that interferes with individual religious liberty.
The four, British citizens who have returned to England, were brought to Guantanamo after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and they are now suing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and 10 U.S. military commanders.
The former detainees say they were harassed as they practiced their religion and were forced to shave their beards. In one instance, they contend, a guard threw a Koran into a toilet bucket.
The RFRA applies to territories and possessions of the United States, and in the case of Guantanamo Bay, "the United States exercises perhaps as much control as it possibly could short of 'ultimate sovereignty,'" Judge Urbina ruled.
"Flushing the Koran down the toilet and forcing Muslims to shave their beards falls comfortably within the conduct prohibited from government action" by the RFRA, the judge added. He issued the decision Monday.
Bill Goodman, legal director for the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said yesterday that the judge upheld the cherished American tradition that courts are duty-bound to review illegal acts even if they are claimed to be part of the war on terror and even if committed offshore in places like Guantanamo.
The case seeking $10 million in damages was filed by Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, all of London, and by Jamal Al-Harith of Manchester, England. They were released from Guantanamo in March 2004.
The four say they were conducting humanitarian relief in Afghanistan and were trying to return to England when they were taken into custody. The men claim their captor, Gen. Rashid Dostum, now Afghanistan's military chief, turned them over to U.S. forces for a bounty.
Meanwhile, yesterday in Beijing, Chinese officials criticized a U.S. decision to release five Chinese Muslims from the Guantanamo Bay detention center to seek asylum in Albania.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said the five men -- captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- are suspected of being members of a group accused of waging a violent separatist campaign in China's northwestern Muslim region of Xinjiang.
The United States said last week it was letting them go to Albania after concluding they posed no terrorist threat to the U.S. but face persecution if returned to China.