WASHINGTON—Eight men who say they were severely tortured by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan sued Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday, charging that he should be held personally responsible for injuries they suffered because he permitted harsh interrogation tactics.
The four Iraqi and four Afghan citizens said they were repeatedly beaten, cut with knives, sexually humiliated and faced mock firing squads in several locations in the two countries during 2003 and 2004.
They claimed in the suit that Rumsfeld authorized the tactics in 2002, then ignored complaints about torture from the Red Cross, FBI agents and others long before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal erupted last year.
The Defense Department "vigorously disputed" allegations in the lawsuit.
"No policies or procedures approved by the secretary of defense were intended as, or could conceivably have been interpreted as, a policy of abuse, or as condoning abuse," the department said in a statement. Rumsfeld didn't comment personally.
"We now know that torture was not an aberration—it was a matter of policy," said Bill Lann Lee, who was a U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights during the Clinton administration and is a co-counsel in the case.
The lawsuit, organized by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the group Human Rights First, is the first seeking to hold an American official personally responsible for alleged abuse of captives in Iraq and Afghanistan. It requests unspecified monetary damages and a declaration that Rumsfeld acted unconstitutionally.
Among the plaintiffs' lawyers are two former top U.S. military officers: retired Rear Adm. John Hutson, who was Navy judge advocate general, and retired Army Brig. Gen. James Cullen, who was chief judge of the Army Court of Criminal Appeals.
"The U.S. military has always been a role model in treating the captured," Hutson said. "I don't think we are now."
Attorneys filed the suit in federal district court in Chicago. They said they sued in Illinois, Rumsfeld's home state, where they believe he has assets, rather than Washington or Virginia because of the request for damages. Rumsfeld once represented an Illinois district in Congress.
Similar lawsuits were filed in three other states, targeting military officers who had responsibility for American detention centers in Iraq: Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, and is from Texas; Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, a reserve Army officer from South Carolina who commanded Abu Ghraib prison; and Col. Thomas Pappas, a military intelligence officer from Connecticut who oversaw interrogations at the prison.
None of the plaintiffs was ever charged with a crime, and several complain of permanent injuries from their treatment, from nearly paralyzed legs to ruptured eardrums, their lawyers said.
The role that U.S. interrogation policies might have played in abuse of prisoners has been hotly debated since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke last year. Seven low-ranking soldiers were charged in that case, and military officials have sought to portray the abuse as the work of "rogue" soldiers working the night shift without proper supervision.
But memos made public largely through Freedom of Information Act requests since that scandal broke have shown that a number of government officials, including FBI agents, had complained about harsh interrogation tactics and that Rumsfeld had authorized some tactics that previously had been considered off limits.
The lawsuit cites a December 2002 memo from Rumsfeld that authorized "stress and duress" tactics on detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. While some of those techniques later were rescinded, many were used in Iraq and Afghanistan, the suit claims. It charges that detainees' rights were violated, including the Fifth Amendment's requirement of due process for prisoners and the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The suit also alleges that the treatment violated U.S. anti-torture statutes and the Geneva Conventions.
The eight men who claim they were tortured fear reprisal for coming forward but are prepared to participate in a trial, Lucas Guttentag of the ACLU said.
Two of the Iraqis, Thahe Sabbar, 36, and Sherzad Khalid, 34, returned to Abu Ghraib to collect belongings and were detained briefly again, he said. They feared complaining to the U.S. military about their treatment, the suit says.
None of the men's cases has been investigated by the military, lawyers said.
The former detainees claim lengthy, brutal abuse. Some examples:
_ Sabbar, who said he was detained at four locations, said he was forced to run through a gantlet of 10 to 20 officers who beat him with wooden batons, that a "gun-shaped device inflicted excruciating electrical shocks" and that he and other prisoners were forced to stand against a wall during a mock firing squad complete with gunfire.
_ Mehboob Ahmad, 35, an Afghan, was held at Bagram Air Base in 2003. He said he was hung upside down from the ceiling and hung by his arms from a chain, and was forced to wear black, opaque goggles and sound-blocking earphones for the first month of detention.
_ Iraqi Arkan Ali, 26, said soldiers used a large knife to stab and slice his forearm, stripped him and kept him several days in a coffin-like box, and desecrated his Quran by having a guard dog pick it up in its mouth. Arabs consider dogs unclean.
The human rights lawyers are trying to use the Alien Tort Claims, which foreigners have employed in U.S. courts to seek damages against torturers.
One former high-ranking foreign official living in the United States, ex-Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia of El Salvador, was found liable for torture in his native country in a 2002 case in Florida. But the case was overturned Monday by an appeals court in Atlanta, which ruled that the statute of limitations had expired before the lawsuit was filed.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.