Obama lawyers claim Gitmo detainees still not persons after Hobby Lobby; Judge needs more evidence of Ramadan abuses

July 10, 2014

Image of detainees in Guantanamo bay

In a court hearing held today (July 10) at the DC District Court, the US government argued that Guantanamo detainees are ‘not persons’ entitled to the protection of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) – unlike US corporation Hobby Lobby.

It also suggested that hunger-striking prisoners did not need to be allowed to pray in a group, as is traditional during the month of Ramadan, because they could ‘hear’ one another praying while standing alone in their cells.

Lawyers for Pakistani Ahmad Rabbani and Yemeni Emad Hassan, both of whom have been detained without charge since 2002, argued that hunger strikers in Camp V are being punished by the prison authorities, who force them to pray alone in their cells. In court, Reprieve lawyer Alka Pradhan stressed that denying communal prayer to men held without charge or trial for over a dozen years just adds ‘another deprivation and humiliation to their lives.’

Judge Gladys Kessler said Guantanamo detainees needed to submit further evidence of the prison authorities’ deprivation of their religious freedoms to win judicial intervention. She said that at this “early stage” of the litigation, she could not rule in favour of the detainees on the basis of last week’s US Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision – which held for the first time that RFRA rights extend to for-profit corporations.

Ruling from the bench, Judge Kessler said: “The Petitioner’s argument is that it is the communal participation that is so important. I understand that’s the argument, but I don’t have any facts to support that. And I would imagine that such facts – at a later point in this litigation – could be presented.

In the face of this claim, and of evidence about the central importance of the tarawih prayer to Muslims in Ramadan, Justice Department lawyers insisted that even after Hobby Lobby, detainees should not be considered ‘persons’ under RFRA. Lawyer for the government Ron Wiltsie suggested that detainees are banned from communal prayer on the basis that the food slot is opened in each prisoner’s solitary cell at prayer times, saying: “Can they see each other? No. Can they touch each other? No. Are they in the same room as each other? No. Can they hear each other? Yes.”

Alka Pradhan, from international human rights NGO Reprieve which, along with law firm Lewis Baach and Jon B. Eisenberg, is representing the men, said: “Once again, the Obama administration demonstrates its inhumanity by denying our clients even the status of ‘persons.’ Emad Hassan and Ahmad Rabbani have only two consolations at Guantanamo after twelve years without charge – their peaceful hunger strikes and the practice of their religion. The government continually chips away at both, and this religious insensitivity is most egregious during the month of Ramadan.”

Attorney Jon B. Eisenberg said: “It is truly grotesque for the Obama folks to insist that a for-profit corporation is a person but a flesh-and-blood human being at Guantanamo Bay is not.”


Notes to editors

1.  For the full court filing from the government, see here.

2.  The first motions filed by Reprieve can be accessed here (Emad Hassan and Ahmad Rabbani) and the final motions filed by Reprieve can be read here.

3.  For a full timeline of the force-feeding litigation, see here.

4.  Details of the separate force-feeding case Dhiab v Obama can be accessed here.

5.  For further information, please contact Reprieve’s press office in the US: clemency.wells@reprieve.org.uk / 001 (929) 258 2754