Top officials like former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller can be sued over abusive treatment of Muslim immigrants rounded up after Sept. 11, a federal appeals court in Manhattan ruled Wednesday in a stinging critique of government tactics.

"The Constitution defines the limits of the defendants' authority," the judges wrote in a 109-page opinion. "Detaining individuals as if they were terrorists, in the most restrictive conditions of confinement available, simply because these individuals were, or appeared to be, Arab or Muslim, exceeds those limits.

"It might well be that national security concerns motivated the defendants to take action, but that is of little solace to those who felt the brunt of that decision," the judges added.

More storiesNewsday's coverage of September 11, 2001

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruling came in a 13-year-old lawsuit brought by eight men swept up for immigration violations in a dragnet following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and held in harsh, high-security conditions at federal jails in Brooklyn and New Jersey.

The plaintiffs say they were subjected to punitive treatment documented in internal Justice Department reports -- solitary confinement, frequent strip searches, abuse by guards -- and that "maximum pressure" was condoned at the highest levels of government, despite the lack of any evidence of ties to terrorism or the attacks.

Decisions forcing officials at the level of Mueller and Ashcroft to stand trial are rare. The Second Circuit did not conclude they were liable, but found sufficient evidence to make the claim plausible, and said they weren't protected by immunity or uncertainty about constitutional rights during a national emergency.

"Discovery may show that the defendants . . . are not personally responsible for detaining plaintiffs in these conditions," the opinion said. "But we simply cannot conclude at this stage that concern for the safety of our nation justified the violation of the constitutional rights on which this nation was built."

Judges Rosemary Pooler and Richard Wesley joined in the 2-1 decision, but it triggered a 91-page dissent from Judge Reena Raggi, who said that holding top leaders personally liable for their judgments in an unprecedented crisis was wrong.

"The 9/11 attacks killed 3,000 people and presented unrivaled challenges . . . for the security of the nation," she wrote.The Justice Department said it is reviewing the decision.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Rachel Meeropol, the lawyer for the detainees, said, "Orders came from officials at the highest levels of government. Now we have the chance to ensure that they are held accountable."END

END