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Justices Are Asked to Reject POWs' Case Against Iraq

The White House says the suit stemming from the 1991 war would undermine rebuilding.

March 23, 2005|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Bush administration lawyers urged the Supreme Court on Tuesday to dismiss a lawsuit against Iraq brought by U.S. pilots and soldiers who were captured and tortured by Saddam Hussein's regime during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, saying the president believed it could hurt the rebuilding effort in Iraq.

Courts must defer to the president's determination that a nearly $1-billion damage award won by the former prisoners of war "would seriously undermine funding for the essential tasks of the new Iraqi government," Paul D. Clement, acting U.S. solicitor general, told the justices.

The reaction to the former POWs' case, due to be acted on by the high court next month, has rankled some military and veterans groups. They say the administration is turning its back on those who fought in the Gulf War.

The 17 former POWs and their families sued Iraq under a 1996 law that opened the courthouse door to claims against terrorist states that practice torture, bombings and hijackings. They said they had been beaten, starved and subjected to electric shocks when they were held as prisoners by the Iraqis. Some emerged with broken bones as well as psychological injuries that have yet to heal.

The lead plaintiff, Lt. Col. Clifford Acree, was in a plane that was shot down by a surface-to-air missile Jan. 17, 1991. He ejected from his plane but suffered a neck injury. He was taken prisoner, blindfolded and handcuffed, and then beaten until he lost consciousness.

His nose was broken, his skull fractured, and he lost 30 pounds during his 47 days of captivity.

Two years ago, a judge awarded the POWs nearly $1 billion in damages and said the award could be paid with the frozen assets of Hussein's regime.

Shortly after the verdict, the Bush administration moved to have it thrown out, saying it interfered with U.S. plans to rebuild a new Iraq.

The U.S. appeals court in Washington, siding with the administration, voided the judge's verdict last year.

But the POWs appealed the issue to the Supreme Court, saying Congress gave torture victims the right to sue "state sponsors of terror."

A bipartisan group of lawmakers also filed a brief with the high court and argued that Congress did indeed intend to authorize such claims.

"Col. Acree and our brave American servicemen were brutally tortured during the Gulf War, including having their bones broken and being starved. Yet the Justice Department continues to fight against them in court to deny their right to compensation as the law provides," said Paul Kamenar, senior counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation.

The foundation, a conservative advocacy group, filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the members of Congress. They included Sens. George Allen (R-Va.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). The House members include California Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Petaluma) and Bob Filner (D-San Diego).

The administration was supposed to file its response in mid-February but asked for a one-month delay.

Now that all of the briefs have been filed, the justices will probably vote by late April on whether to hear the case, known as Acree vs. Iraq and the U.S.

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