A Los Angeles filmmaker who was imprisoned in Iraq for 55 days sued Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking military officials Friday, alleging that his detention violated his civil rights, the law of nations and the Geneva Convention.
Mark D. Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said the suit is the first civil action challenging the constitutionality of the U.S. government's detention and hearing policies in Iraq.
Cyrus Kar, 45, of Los Feliz was freed a year ago, just days after the American Civil Liberties Union sued seeking his release. The new lawsuit, filed in federal court in Los Angeles, seeks damages for Kar and broad changes in the government's detention policies.
"The abuses experienced by Mr. Kar -- prolonged arbitrary detention without charge, the systematic denial of access to counsel, and the absence of any court in which to challenge the legality of his detention -- are the norm for thousands of persons held in U.S. military detention in Iraq," the suit asserts, citing reports by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International.
"Human rights monitors note that the vast majority of the over 15,000 detainees in U.S. military custody in Iraq have never been charged, tried, provided counsel, or allowed to challenge their detention in court, and over one-fifth of them have been detained for over a year in this manner," according to the suit.
In addition, the suit cites a 2004 Red Cross report that said military intelligence officers of coalition forces acknowledged "between 70% and 90% of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake."
Kar, a U.S. citizen and Navy veteran, went to Iraq 14 months ago to make a documentary film about Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who wrote the world's first human rights charter.
On May 17, 2005, the taxi he was riding in was stopped at a Baghdad checkpoint and authorities found components in the trunk that are commonly used in improvised explosive devices. The taxi driver told military authorities that Kar and his cameraman knew nothing about the items, which the driver said he was bringing to his brother-in-law.
Kar also submitted to a polygraph examination and allowed the FBI to search his apartment. They found nothing incriminating, but he was held for many more weeks in various prisons around Iraq, including the notorious facility at Abu Ghraib.
Even after he was cleared by a military court at Camp Cropper, Kar was held another week. Eventually, the camp commandant gave him a letter stating that military judges found him to be an "innocent civilian" under the Geneva Convention.
While in confinement, the suit states, Kar was at various times hooded, restrained "in painful flexi-cuffs" and "repeatedly threatened, taunted and insulted" by U.S. soldiers.
At one point, according to the suit, a U.S. soldier slammed Kar's head into a concrete wall at Abu Ghraib.
"Mr. Kar was and remains traumatized by his indefinite and virtually incommunicado detention, in solitary confinement, by the U.S. military without charge," the suit says.
Since returning to the U.S., Kar has continued to work on his film. He said Friday that he is trying to raise money for postproduction editing.
What happened to him in Iraq was "a life-altering experience," Kar said. "I am not a left-wing liberal. I agree with many of George Bush's policies."
But, he added, "I don't think the Constitution has to be gutted to achieve our objectives" in the war on terrorism. "I felt it was my duty as an American to take a stand for the constitutional rights guaranteed to all Americans."
The suit was filed by Rosenbaum and Ranjana Natarajan of the ACLU and volunteer attorney Dan Marmalefsky of the Morrison & Foerster law firm. In addition to Rumsfeld, the defendants include Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commanding general of the multinational forces in Iraq; Maj. Gen. William H. Brandenburg, who was in charge of detainee operations in Iraq at the time of Kar's detention; Lt. Col. Carol Haas, who was commandant of Camp Cropper when Kar was held there in solitary confinement; and Lt. Col. John Dunlap, who was president of the military's Detainee Status Board in Iraq.
On Friday, a Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department "does not discuss matters under litigation until the court has rendered a decision."
When Kar was released last July, military officials said he properly had been detained as "an imperative security threat" under the authority of a United Nations Security Council resolution and that the matter had been handled and resolved appropriately.
"This case highlights the effectiveness of our detainee review process," Brig. Gen. Don Alston said in a prepared statement after Kar's release.