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Court rules against Harbury

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent   |   June 20, 2002 at 1:19 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, June 20 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday against Jennifer Harbury, the woman who claimed that a variety of U.S. agencies had misled her about the fate of her husband, Guatemalan rebel commander Efrain Bamaca-Velasquez.

In her suit, Harbury contended that those alleged lies effectively denied her access to the courts.

But the Supreme Court said Harbury's claim did not even come close to satisfying the constitutional requirements for a denial-of-access suit.

The ruling has profound implications for the CIA and the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

Harbury, a U.S. citizen, married Bamaca in Texas in 1991. Several months later, Bamaca returned to Guatemala.

He disappeared around March 12, 1992.

The Guatemalan army announced that Bamaca had committed suicide during an armed skirmish, and soldiers had buried his body.

However, Harbury later learned that her husband had been captured by the army, "among whom were paid CIA informants."

According to court papers filed by Harbury, "over the next 12 to 18 months, Bamaca's captors psychologically abused and physically tortured him. They chained and bound him naked to a bed, beat and threatened him, and encased him in a full-body cast to prevent escape. Eventually, probably sometime around September of 1993, they executed him."

As soon as she knew he had been captured, Harbury contacted several State Department officials, asking for information about her husband.

But her repeated attempts to gain information were frustrated until CBS's "60 Minutes" did a story about Bamaca's plight.

The State Department then conceded Bamaca had been captured, not killed, but said it had no further information and could not say whether he was still alive.

Clinton National Security Adviser Anthony Lake told her the United States had "scraped the bottom of the barrel" but had no more information, according to a federal appeals court.

Harbury began a hunger strike in front of the White House on March 12, 1995 -- the third anniversary of her husband's disappearance.

Twelve days into her strike, Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., announced publicly that he had learned Bamaca was killed years earlier on the order of Guatemalan official on the CIA payroll.

Harbury then filed suit against a number of officials, including Christopher and Lake.

A federal judge in Washington ruled for the officials, but a federal appeals court reinstated the case.

The appeals court said Harbury "has stated a valid claim for deprivation of her right of access to courts, and because the (National Security Council) and State Department officials are not entitled to qualified immunity on this claim," the case was sent back down for more hearings.

The officials then asked the Supreme Court to intervene before the case went back to the trial court.

The officials asked the justices to decide whether allegations that officials "withheld information and intentionally misled a private citizen about a foreign rebel leader" constitute a "violation of the constitutional right of access to the courts, when the only claim is that the defendants' speech was intentionally misleading and there are no allegations that (Harbury) ever tried to file a lawsuit and was actually hindered in that effort."

The justices heard argument last March, with Harbury herself presenting her case.

In the main opinion Thursday, Justice David Souter said, "Harbury's complaint did not come even close to stating a constitutional claim for denial of access which could be granted. While we cannot read it without appreciating Harbury's anguish, neither can we read it without appreciating the position of the district judge (who ruled against her and) who described Harbury's requests for relief as 'nearly unintelligible.'"

Almost all of the other justices signed on to Souter's opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a separate opinion concurring in the judgment.

The Supreme Court did not rule on Harbury's claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, which remain pending at the trial court level.

(No. 01-394, Christopher et al vs. Harbury)

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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