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Guantánamo detainees win right to court review

The US Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 Thursday that those held in Guantánamo can challenge their detention.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 13, 2008

Guantánamo Bay: Camp Delta at the US naval base in Cuba has housed foreign prisoners in the war on terror since 2002. The Supreme Court's ruling Thursday allows them to challenge their detention in ci

Brennan Linsley/AP



Imprisoned terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, won a major legal victory on Thursday when the US Supreme Court ruled that they have the right to petition US courts challenging the legality of their open-ended detention.

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The ruling marks a substantial setback for the Bush administration, which had urged the high court to embrace the government's view that Guantánamo detainees enjoy only a narrow range of legal options in disputing their classification as enemy combatants.

The 5 to 4 decision strikes down a portion of the 2006 Military Commissions Act that sought to strip federal judges in the US of the ability to hear legal appeals filed on behalf of the Guantánamo detainees.

The MCA authorized military tribunals to determine whether detainees were being properly held as enemy combatants. The law also set out a sharply limited appeals process.

"Security depends upon a sophisticated intelligence apparatus and the ability of our Armed Forces to act and to interdict," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. "Security subsists, too, in fidelity to freedom's first principles."

He added, "Chief among them are freedom from arbitrary and unlawful restraint...."

In a dissent read from the bench, Justice Antonin Scalia warned that the court's holding would lead to "disastrous consequences."

"The Nation will live to regret what the court has done today," he said.

The decision arrives only weeks before the first terror suspects are scheduled to stand trial before military commissions at the Guantánamo Bay naval base.

Some 270 detainees are being held at the specially constructed prison camp at Guantánamo. The site was originally selected by Bush administration legal advisers because it was thought to exist outside the reach of American constitutional protections and other legal rights.

Administration lawyers have argued that the terror suspects at Guantánamo violated the law of war by engaging in terrorism or support of terrorism and thus are not entitled to the broader legal protections accorded prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions or the US Constitution.

Lawyers for the detainees countered that many of the men have been held for six years without a fair opportunity to examine and challenge the evidence against them before a neutral decisionmaker. They said the military review process set up at Guantánamo was not an adequate substitute for the right under habeas corpus to force the government to prove the legality of one's detention before an impartial judge.

In its ruling on Thursday, the majority justices agreed. The Supreme Court for the first time declared that the constitutional protections of habeas corpus extend to noncitizens detained outside sovereign US territory.

The court also ruled that the Bush administration and Congress had crafted an unacceptable alternative to habeas corpus by authorizing three-person military tribunals to review the status of each detainee being held as an enemy combatant. Under the MCA, the detainees were to be given a limited opportunity to appeal such determinations to the federal appeals court in Washington.

The majority justices said this process wasn't robust enough.

The "[Guantánamo] review process is, on its face, an inadequate substitute for habeas corpus," Justice Kennedy writes. "We do not hold that an adequate substitute must duplicate [the federal habeas law] in all respects."

Kennedy said the result is that the MCA brings about an unconstitutional suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.