Torture and Religious Liberty

Lawrence Swaim writes about the efforts taken by American torturers at Guantanamo to destroy the religious faith of captives.

Four former detainees at Guantanamo — Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed and Jamal al-Harith — are litigating in Rasul vs. Rumsfeld to hold government officials accountable for torture they endured while being held there. (All were found innocent of terrorist activity and released in 2004.) Represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the four British citizens first cited violations of the U.S. Constitution and international law, but these were thrown out by the district court because the alleged misconduct (beatings, painful shackling, interrogation at gunpoint, use of dogs, extreme temperatures and sleep deprivation) was seen as occurring during the “course of war.” But allegations of deliberate attacks on religion were not so easily ignored and are currently being considered by an appeals court in Washington, D.C.

The former Gitmo detainees allege they were forced to shave their beards, were systematically interrupted while praying, denied the Qu’ran and prayer mats, made to pray with exposed genitals and forced to watch as the Qu’ran was thrown into a toilet bucket. Obviously, the only reason for such abuse would be to crush inmates psychologically by insulting their religion. Therefore it could, if proven, violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which seeks to protect religious expression.

The RFRA was originally passed by a broad interfaith coalition including the Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Council of Churches, American Jewish Committee, National Association of Evangelicals, Seventh-Day Adventists and the Joint Baptist Committee for Religious Liberty. (The latter is supported by Baptists with whom former President Jimmy Carter has been working.) They came together again recently to submit friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the four plaintiffs.

The Joint Baptist Committee General Counsel K. Hollyn Hollman was in the District Court of Appeals on Sept. 14 when arguments were made using the RFRA. “As advocates of religious freedom, we’re very concerned when an attack on religion is alleged to be part of any kind of torture or coercive interrogation,” she told InFocus.

The appeals court dwelt especially on definitions of the words “person” and “religion” as used in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Justice Department argued that Guantanamo detainees might not be “persons” as defined by RFRA. At one point, Judge A. Raymond Randolph, who tends to support hard-liners in the Bush administration, asked co-counsel Eric Lewis: “What’s your definition of religion?”

Lewis knew exactly where Randolph was going with this. “I would suggest that Islam fits within any definition of religion,” he said.

Documentation in the case.

Baltimore Sun article:

Lawyers for the government did not address the plaintiffs’ allegations of torture and abuse, arguing instead that the religious restoration act does not apply to aliens outside the U.S. One reason, they said, was that the foreign-born detainees at Guantanamo aren’t “persons” as defined by the statute.

“Are you saying aliens abroad aren’t persons?” Brown asked.

“At the very least, the word is ambiguous,” answered Justice Department lawyer Cohn.

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Lewis faced pointed questioning from Judge A. Raymond Randolph, who has consistently supported the administration’s position in rulings on Guantanamo detainees. At one point, Randolph asked the attorney, “What’s your definition of religion?”

After a pause, Lewis said, “I would suggest Islam fits within any definition of religion.”

Randolph also expressed concern that a ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor would perhaps give those abused at the prison at Abu Ghraib the power to sue the U.S. government.

To which Lewis replied, “One place at a time, your honor.”