Justices hear claims of harassment from Muslim prisoner

By The Associated Press
10.30.07

  • Oral argument transcript

      WASHINGTON — The Bush administration urged the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday to bar a Muslim inmate from suing prison officials who allegedly confiscated two copies of the Quran and his prayer rug.

      The inmate should be limited to filing an administrative complaint as thousands of other prisoners do every year for a variety of allegations, a Justice Department lawyer told the Court.

      The government laid out its position regarding a lawsuit by convicted murderer Abdus-Shahid M.S. Ali, who says Muslim prisoners around the United States are regularly mistreated by their jailers because of their religious faith.

      Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia expressed doubts over the inmate's claim of having a right to sue, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer suggested they are skeptical of the government's position.

      "There is no court remedy?" asked Ginsburg.

      No, but under the administrative process, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has paid compensation for over a thousand inmate claims in the last three years, Assistant Solicitor General Kannon Shanmugam replied.

      Ali contends the books and rug are among the personal items that have been missing since 2003, when he was moved from one federal prison to another.

      Muslim inmates have been subjected to "very hard times and bad treatment" at the hands of federal, state and local prison employees because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Ali states in court papers.

      Ali is serving a sentence of 20 years to life in prison for committing first-degree murder.

      It seems as though "the many prison employees think that they can hurt you best taking your personally owned property," Ali wrote.

      Ali added that because he has "practiced his faith to the fullest" he has been subjected to prison officials repeatedly confiscating and destroying his legal and religious property.

      He said he has been harassed for his religious beliefs "year after year" in prisons.

      In the Supreme Court, the question is whether federal prison officials qualify as law enforcement officers under the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946 and are therefore exempt from lawsuits. The statute bars liability claims against customs and excise officers or "any other law enforcement officer" involved in detaining property. Two lower federal courts have ruled against Ali.

      The case is Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 06-9130.