WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday granted an appeal by four former Guantanamo prisoners and ordered further review of their lawsuit against top Pentagon officials for torture and religious abuse.
The justices set aside a U.S. appeals court ruling that dismissed the lawsuit by the four British citizens over their treatment at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba on the grounds they have no right to sue.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court for further consideration in view of the high court's ruling in June that Guantanamo prisoners have the legal right to challenge their continued confinement before federal judges in Washington, D.C.
The four men -- Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed and Jamal al-Harith -- were captured in late 2001 in Afghanistan and were transferred to Guantanamo in early 2002. Released in March of 2004, they were returned to Britain.
Their lawsuit named then-Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and 10 military commanders. They claimed they were subjected to various forms of torture, harassed as they practiced their religion and forced to shave their religious beards.
In one instance, a guard threw a Koran in a toilet bucket, according to the lawsuit. They claimed violations of a U.S. religious rights law, the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Constitution.
"This case presents the question of whether senior officials of the United States government can be held accountable ... for ordering the religious humiliation and torture of Guantanamo detainees," their lawyers said in the appeal to the Supreme Court.
"This case presents the opportunity to recognise and enforce rights that are at least as basic and essential to human autonomy -- the right to worship and the right not to be tortured," they said.
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has promised to close the prison camp after he takes office in January. There are about 250 detainees at Guantanamo, which was set up in January 2002 to hold terrorism suspects captured after the September 11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants.
Most have been held for years without being charged and many of the prisoners have complained of abuse.
In dismissing the lawsuit by the four Muslims, the appeals court cited a lack of jurisdiction over the claims, ruled the defendants enjoyed qualified immunity for acts taken within the scope of their government jobs and held the religious right law did not apply to the detainees.
The three-judge panel ruled the prisoners were not covered by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because they "are aliens and were located outside sovereign United States territory" at the time of the alleged violations.
The Bush administration urged the Supreme Court to reject the appeal on the grounds that the appeals court's decision was correct.
"The court of appeals reasonably concluded that military detainees could not impose personal monetary liability on the nation's military commanders for overseas conditions of confinement during a time of war," Justice Department attorneys said.
The Supreme Court's action in reinstating the lawsuit was at least a temporary setback for the government.
(Editing by David Alexander and David Wiessler)