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Supreme Court Blocks Sept. 11 Detainee Lawsuit

by Joan Biskupic

WASHINGTON - A deeply split Supreme Court on Monday blocked a Pakistani man from suing former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller for allegedly abusive treatment he faced when rounded up with other Arab Muslims in New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The court, in a decision by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said the man failed to present sufficient information that would link Ashcroft and Mueller to mistreatment he faced or show that the detention policies arose from bias on account of race or religion, rather than a neutral investigation.

Kennedy was joined by the four more conservative members of the court; the four liberals dissented.

Javid Iqbal sued Ashcroft and Mueller, along with other officials, saying he was subjected to harsher conditions, including abusive strip searches and beatings, because he is an Arab Muslim.

Federal agents had arrested Iqbal, a Pakistani citizen working as a cable television installer on Long Island, at his home in late 2001 and held him for several months at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

He was among more than 1,000 people picked up and questioned by the FBI looking for suspects in the New York area with links to the attacks.

Iqbal, who was charged with fraud related to his identification papers, says he was designated a person of "high interest" solely because of his race and religion. He was transferred to a unit, where, he contends, on his first day guards "picked him up and threw him against the wall, kicked him in the stomach, punished him in the face, and dragged him across the room."

The Brooklyn center became the subject of complaints of detainee mistreatment, a 2003 Department of Justice inspector general report found widespread abuse of detainees there, and numerous individual lawsuits related to treatment at the center are still pending.

Iqbal, who was deported to Pakistan, sued current and former federal officials and 19 prison officers. Monday's case involved only the claim against high-ranking officials and their potential responsibility for the alleged violation of Iqbal's rights while in detention.

The key question revolved around information Iqbal had to produce about Ashcroft and Mueller's involvement in detention policies to have his case against them heard. Lower federal courts had ruled that Iqbal's claim could go forward.

In a reversal Monday, Kennedy said Iqbal failed to bring forth enough facts to state a claim of purposeful and unlawful discrimination on the part of the top officials.

To get his complaint heard, Kennedy said, Iqbal had to show that the officials adopted and implemented the detention policies not for neutral, investigative reasons but to purposefully discriminate based on race, religion or national origin.

Kennedy said the high court was not expressing any opinion about Iqbal's claims against prison officials.

His "account of his prison ordeal alleges serious official misconduct that we need not address here," Kennedy wrote. "Our decision is limited to the determination that (Iqbal's) complaint does not entitle him to relief" from Ashcroft and Mueller.

Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Justice Souter, writing for the dissenters, said the majority used too high of a standard when reviewing Iqbal's pleading and should not have blocked further hearings on his claims. Souter said the majority wrongly rejected the possibility that the top officials could have been liable as supervisors of the men at the detention center.

Souter noted that Ashcroft and Mueller in their legal filings "made the critical concession that a supervisor's knowledge of a subordinate's unconstitutional conduct and deliberate indifference to that conduct are grounds for ... liability."

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