Britons held at Guantanamo Bay win right to sue their captors

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The Independent US

Four British citizens released from the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay have won the right to sue their captors for violation of their religious rights.

The four - Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul from Tipton, in the West Midlands, and Jamal al-Harith, from Manchester - have spent the past two years pursuing a wide array of complaints against the Pentagon and their military captors, including allegations of physical and mental abuse as well as affronts to their Muslim faith. This, though, marked the first time that a significant legal decision has gone in their favour.

A potentially ground-breaking ruling from a federal judge in Washington rejected the US government's argument that Guantanamo, in south-eastern Cuba, is beyond the jurisdiction of the US civilian courts. Instead, District Judge Ricardo Urbina said the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to all territories and possessions of the United States.

Judge Urbina has previously ruled against the so-called Tipton Three and Mr al-Harith but this time he pointed to the special place accorded to religious practice under the US Constitution, and said the allegations against the US military posed a "direct affront to one of this nation's most cherished constitutional traditions".

The plaintiffs allege, among other things, that they were forced to shave their beards, grown for religious reasons, endured taunting from guards about their adherence to Islam, and were forced to watch as a copy of the Koran was thrown into a lavatory. "Flushing the Koran down the toilet and forcing Muslims to shave their beards falls comfortably within the conduct prohibited from government action," Judge Uriba said.

The alleged lavatory-flushing episode has caused considerable consternation in the US since the accusation first surfaced. A Pentagon inquiry completed last year would not confirm that the episode took place. The inquiry nevertheless found that a soldier urinated on a copy of the Koran - supposedly by accident - among a number of other lapses.

The Tipton Three were arrested in Afghanistan during the war in 2001, and transferred to Guantanamo where they were held without charge until their release and return to Britain in March 2004.

Mr al-Harith was, by his own account, abducted by the Taliban in Pakistan and held as a suspected British spy. After the Taliban were overthrown, he fell into US custody and was also transferred to Guantanamo.

Together, the four are demanding $10m (£5.3m) in damages from Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence, and 10 military commanders.