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Supreme Court rejects military tribunals

The high court's 5-to-3 ruling Thursday scuttled US plans for Guantánamo detainees.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2006


In a landmark decision restricting the president's powers during wartime, the US Supreme Court has dealt the Bush administration a severe blow in its push to prosecute terrorists in military tribunals.

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The court ruled 5-to-3 Thursday that Mr. Bush acted outside his authority when he ordered Al Qaeda suspects to stand trial before these specially organized military commissions. The ruling said that the commission process at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, could not proceed without violating US military law and provisions of the Geneva Conventions. "The commission lacks power to proceed," writes Justice John Paul Stevens for the court majority.

President Bush said he would honor the decision in the case called Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, but do it in a way that did not jeopardize the safety of Americans.

"I want to find a way forward," Bush told reporters. "I would like there to be a way to return people from Guantánamo to their home countries, but some of these people need to be tried" in court.

Human-rights organizations praised the ruling as a step forward for the US, while administrtation supporters expressed concern.

"This is a very serious blow for the president," says Andrew McBride, a former federal prosecutor who filed a friend of the court brief in the case. "It takes a very narrow view of the president's authority."

Thomas Wilner, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents several detainees at Guantánamo, said the ruling shows that presidents must act in accord with other branches of government. "It really reaffirms what courts have said from the beginning of the republic. That at times of crisis, the executive is not exempt from following the law," Mr. Wilner says.

The case sharply split the high court with six separate opinions covering 177 pages.

"The (Uniform Code of Military Justice) conditions the president's use of military commissions on compliance not only with the American common law of war, but also with the rest of the UCMJ itself," Justice Stevens writes. "The procedures that the government has decreed will govern (detainee Salim Ahmed) Hamdan's trial by commission violate these laws."

Joining Justice Stevens' opinion were Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented, saying the court lacked jurisdiction to take up the case. In a second dissent on the merits, Justice Thomas said the court owed the president "a heavy measure of deference."

"The court's evident belief that it is qualified to pass on the military necessity of the commander in chief's decision to employ a particular form of force against our enemies is so antithetical to our constitutional structure that it simply cannot got unanswered," Thomas writes.

Chief Justice John Roberts did not participate in the case because he was part of a three-judge federal appeals court panel that ruled on the same case in the Bush administration's favor last July.

On Thursday, the high court overturned that earlier ruling.

The decision comes in the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan of Yemen, who is alleged to have worked as a driver and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. Mr. Hamdan is one of 10 detainees at Guantánamo facing war crimes trials before a military commission.

Defense officials say 65 more detainees are under consideration for commission trials.

Overall, there are some 450 detainees at the controversial detention facility. US allies in Europe and the UN's Committee Against Torture have urged the US to close the detention camp. Critics say harsh treatment of detainees at the camp has tarnished America's image as a champion of international human rights.

Supporters of the camp say it is necessary to facilitate intelligence gathering and that without military commissions many "enemy combatants" could not be prosecuted. Evidence against some of them was obtained through sensitive intelligence operations and using methods that likely violate constitutional protections, legal analysts say.

The Supreme Court ruling does not address whether Guantanámo should remain open or shut down. Instead, it focuses on the process for holding commission trials established by the president in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Lawyers working on Hamdan's behalf had charged that President Bush violated US and international law in ordering specially formulated commission trials at Guantánamo.

The Supreme Court agreed.