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U.S. judges can't pull Americans from Iraqi courts

Thursday's Supreme Court ruling involved men accused of kidnapping-for-ransom schemes.

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



WASHINGTON

Federal judges may not exert the power of the US courts to prevent the American military in Iraq from turning a US citizen over to Iraqi courts for criminal prosecution.

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In a 9-to-0 decision announced on Thursday, the US Supreme Court ruled against two American citizens seeking to prevent their prosecution in Iraqi courts for alleged crimes.

The high court said that even though American citizens enjoy a constitutional right to test the legality of their detention before a neutral judge, American judges do not have jurisdiction to hear such habeas corpus petitions when the detention takes place overseas at the request of a sovereign country.

"Those who commit crimes within a sovereign's territory may be transferred to that sovereign's government for prosecution," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the court.

The ruling comes in two consolidated cases of US citizens accused of involvement in separate plots to kidnap and ransom foreigners in Iraq. Both say they are innocent.

In one case, Munaf v. Geren, the US citizen-detainee was turned over to Iraqi authorities and convicted. In the other, Geren v. Omar, a federal judge ordered US forces not to turn the American over for trial.

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., later ruled that the federal courts retained jurisdiction over the American who had not yet been tried by the Iraqis. But the same appeals court ruled that it had no jurisdiction to consider the case of the citizen-detainee who had already been tried and convicted by the Iraqis.

In its ruling on Thursday, the high court said both habeas corpus petitions should have been promptly dismissed.

"Petitioners concede that Iraq has a sovereign right to prosecute them for alleged violations of its law. Yet they went to federal court seeking an order that would allow them to defeat precisely that sovereign authority," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. "Habeas corpus does not require the United States to shelter such fugitives from the criminal justice system of the sovereign with authority to prosecute them."

Government lawyers had argued that the two men were trying to use the US court system to avoid being held accountable in the Iraqi courts for their alleged crimes.

The two men are Mohammad Munaf and Shawqi Omar.

Mr. Munaf is a dual US-Iraqi citizen. He is suspected of plotting with Iraqi gunmen who kidnapped and ransomed three Romanian journalists in March 2005. Munaf had been hired by the journalists as a translator and guide.

The journalists were eventually released. But Munaf was detained and questioned by the US military. He was held in open-ended detention without charge in an American military prison in Baghdad.

Lawyers working on Munaf's behalf filed a habeas corpus petition with a federal judge in Washington. In response, US officials turned Munaf over to Iraqi authorities.

Munaf's lawyers complained that as a Sunni Muslim, their client might face torture at the hands of Iraqi investigators working to obtain a confession.

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