roadblocks to justice

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News this weekend that Jose Padilla has the right to sue torture lawyer John Yoo is no thanks to the Obama administration.

In case you missed it, this weekend brought good news and bad news on the accountability-for-torture front.

First the good news: Convicted "terrorist" Jose Padilla -- who in 2002 was declared an "illegal enemy combatant" by the Bush administration and imprisoned on a Navy brig, where he languished for more than three years on the grounds that he planned to unleash a "dirty bomb" on U.S. soil (only for said charge to later disappear in favor of a totally different charge) -- has been given the green light to sue notorious torture lawyer John Yoo.

"The decision issued late Friday by a judge in San Francisco allowing a civil lawsuit to go forward against a former Bush administration official, John C. Yoo, might seem like little more than the removal of a procedural roadblock," wrote New York Times reporter John Schwartz on Saturday.

"But lawyers for the man suing Mr. Yoo, Jose Padilla, say it provides substantive interpretation of constitutional issues for all detainees and could have a broad impact."

According to the civil suit, which was brought forth last year, during the years he was held in military custody:

" ... Mr. Padilla suffered gross physical and psychological abuse at the hands of federal officials as part of a systematic program of abusive interrogation intended to break down Mr. Padilla's humanity and his will to live. For nearly two years, Mr. Padilla was held in complete isolation and denied all access to the court system, legal counsel and his family. He was subjected to mistreatment including but not limited to extreme and prolonged sleep and sensory deprivation designed to inflict severe mental pain and suffering; exposure to extreme temperatures; interrogation under threat of torture, deportation and even death; denial of access to necessary medical and psychiatric care; and interference with his ability to practice his religion. In the year and a half that Mr. Padilla remained in the Brig after he was granted limited access to legal counsel, much of this severe abuse continued."

(Go here for more details on Padilla's alleged mistreatment.)

Yoo, whose role in creating the legal framework for the Bush administration's torture program is well-documented, responded to the suit by arguing that he cannot be held responsible for tactics that were not considered unconstitutional at the time. 

In March, lawyers for the Obama administration basically agreed,arguing against Padilla's right to sue. "We're not saying we condone torture," DOJ attorney Mary Mason said at the time. But because Yoo "had no supervisory role over Padilla or his detention," she said, the lawsuit is not valid.

On Friday, however, Federal District Judge Jeffrey S. White -- a George W. Bush appointee -- disagreed. 

According to the New York Times, White "rejected all but one of Mr. Yoo's immunity claims and found that Mr. Padilla 'has alleged sufficient facts to satisfy the requirement that Yoo set in motion a series of events that resulted in the deprivation of Padilla's constitutional rights.'"

Attorney Tahlia Townsend, one member of Padilla's defense team, called White's ruling a "a significant victory for American values, government accountability and our system of checks and balances."

What is Padilla seeking in compensation from the U.S. government for the torture inflicted upon him?

According to wire reports, "Padilla and his mother, Estela Lebron, are seeking one dollar in damages and a declaration by the court that his treatment was unconstitutional."

Pretty impressive given the extent of the damage Padilla's treatment has reportedly wrought. (He is currently serving 17 years behind bars on somewhat hazy charges of "conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim people in a foreign country.") It's the principal of the thing.

The Bad News

At the same time that Jose Padilla is one step closer to something resembling justice, plaintiffs in a different, seemingly promising, lawsuit against another purveyor of Bush-era torture keep getting roadblocks thrown in their direction by the Obama DOJ.

On Friday lawyers for Obama's DOJ argued -- yet again -- that an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of five victims of extraordinary rendition should not proceed. The lawsuit is years in the making and this is only the latest appeal in a series of unsavory (to say the least) arguments launched by the Obama administration in blocking accountability for torture on "state secret" grounds. Most recently, in April the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that the lawsuit, Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen Dataplan, could go forward. But on Friday, Obama's DOJ asked the court to rehear the case.

"The Obama administration has now fully embraced the Bush administration's shameful effort to immunize torturers and their enablers from any legal consequences for their actions," said Ben Wizner, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, in a press release. "The CIA's rendition and torture program is not a 'state secret;' it's an international scandal. If the Obama administration has its way, no torture victim will ever have his day in court, and future administrations will be free to pursue torture policies without any fear of liability."

Of course, the other bad news is that even the "good news" is not so good in terms of the Obama DOJ. Jose Padilla's step toward achieving a shred of accountability for Bush era crimes is not because of the Obama administration. It is in spite of it.

Liliana Segura is a staff writer and editor of AlterNet's Rights and Liberties Special Coverage.

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This page contains a single entry published on June 16, 2009 11:04 AM.

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