Actually, I fudged this post’s title a bit. It’s true that my brother’s and my precedent-setting Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in the 1970’s was against the FBI, the Attorney General and other government agencies. However the “other Meeropol” I mention is my daughter Rachel, and the fudge is that she isn’t a plaintiff against the government. Instead, she is the lead attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case on behalf of a group of Muslim men detained for months, treated as terrorists and brutalized by federal prison guards in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The men, who ultimately were deported, were only guilty of immigration violations.
Last Friday my wife Elli and I watched Rachel argue her case in the Federal District Court in Brooklyn. Her opposition - six attorneys representing former Attorney General Ashcroft, FBI Director Mueller, the Superintendent for the Bureau of Prisons, the Warden of the prison where the abuse took place, and two prison guards - argued that the case against their clients should be dismissed. It was six against one, but Rachel, in my unbiased opinion, held the advantage. All the officials’ attorneys from Ashcroft to the Warden stated that the case against their clients should be dismissed because they had no direct or personal knowledge of any abuse. Rachel had documentary evidence that Ashcroft and Mueller emailed that the guards were to use “all means necessary” to extract information from the prisoners, and it was not contested that the abuse took place.
Despite the strength of the CCR’s case, the Judge, relying on recent Supreme Court decisions insulating government officials from liability, may still lean toward granting the government’s request concerning Ashcroft and Mueller. Whether the prisons are in Brooklyn or Bagdad, the Supreme Court apparently wants to ensure that only those at the bottom of the chain of command be held responsible for post-9/11 abuses, and Federal District Court Judges usually abide by the rulings of their superiors.
The Warden, however, may not fare as well. Perhaps the most interesting interchange of the morning came when the judge posed a hypothetical question for the government attorneys. “Are you saying” he asked “that if the Warden comes upon a guard beating a prisoner, and he has the ability and authority to stop the beating, but does nothing, that the Warden can’t be held liable?” When the government attorney said that was his position, the Judge responded, “That can’t be right.”
I felt very proud of Rachel’s excellent performance. Elli heard one of the opposing attorneys in the hall after the hearing say of Rachel, “She really knows her stuff.” But I also couldn’t help but share her frustration at how unlikely it is that the CCR’s case will result in those most responsible being found personally liable. That does not mean, however, that all is in vain. Rachel’s already won damages of over $1,000,000 for several of the original clients in the suit, and remains quite hopeful that many others will receive compensation for the torture they suffered.
Progressive attorneys don’t have the power to prevent such atrocities, but they can, as the CCR does repeatedly, make the government pay dearly for them. And Rachel and her colleagues give me hope that someday the perpetrators will be brought to account.
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