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Supreme Court deals blow to Guantánamo prisoners challenging their detention

Supreme Court refuses, without comment, to take up multiple appeals examining whether Guantánamo detainees have a 'meaningful opportunity' to challenge the legality of their detention.

By Staff writer / June 11, 2012

In this March 25 file photo, people visit the Supreme Court in Washington.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File

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Washington

The US Supreme Court on Monday refused to take up multiple appeals examining whether suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees at Guantánamo are being afforded a “meaningful opportunity” to challenge the legality of their open-ended detention.

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The high court turned aside appeals filed on behalf of seven Guantánamo detainees. The action came without comment from the justices, but it carried enormous significance.

It lets stand without additional judicial review a series of appeals court rulings since July 2010 that have made it increasingly difficult for Guantánamo detainees to win their cases.

“Today’s decision leaves the fate of detainees in the hands of a hostile [appeals court], which has erected innumerable, unjustified legal obstacles that have made it practically impossible for a detainee to win a habeas case in the trial courts,” said Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many detainees at Guantánamo.

“The [Supreme Court’s] refusal to get involved at this critical juncture permits the court of appeals to continue to rubber stamp the military’s decision-making,” Mr. Warren said in a statement.

Among the rejected appeals was the case of an alleged recruit from Yemen, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif.

Mr. Latif’s lawyers complained in their brief to the court that federal appeals court rulings have gutted legal protections at Guantánamo and erected instead a habeas corpus petition process rigged heavily in the government’s favor.

At the center of the appeal was a charge that the appeals court was not faithfully applying a 2008 Supreme Court decision.

That year, the high court ruled for the first time that Guantánamo detainees were entitled to submit habeas corpus petitions directly to federal judges in Washington to determine whether the government had enough evidence to justify their continued open-ended detention without charge.

The 2008 decision, Boumediene v. Bush, said in part: “We do consider it uncontroversial … that the privilege of habeas corpus entitles the prisoner to a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate he is being [unlawfully] held.”

The decision adds: “The habeas court must have sufficient authority to conduct a meaningful review of both the cause for detention and the Executive’s power to detain.”

Following the Boumediene decision, federal judges began closely scrutinizing the quality of evidence offered by the government. Government lawyers started losing cases – until 2010 when the federal appeals court began requiring federal judges to stop submitting the government’s evidence to such rigorous examination.

Instead, the appeals court said judges must embrace a pro-government presumption that the Guantánamo evidence is reliable. Government lawyers had argued that such a presumption was justified because much of the evidence against the detainees was collected under battlefield conditions amid the “fog of war.”

According to a recent study by legal scholars at Seton Hall University School of Law, between 2008 and July 2010 Guantánamo detainees won 56 percent of their habeas challenges. After July 2010, the win rate fell to 8 percent.

That means that prior to July 2010, a federal judge agreed with 19 of 34 detainees claiming there was insufficient evidence to justify their open-ended detention at Guantánamo and ordered their release. After July 2010, a federal judge agreed with only 1 of 12 detainees.

The change is attributed to rulings by the federal appeals court, which has taken up 19 of the Guantánamo habeas cases and reversed or remanded every case in which a federal judge ordered a detainee’s release.

The last detainee to win a release order was Latif, who has been held without charge for 10 years. A federal judge ordered his release from Guantánamo in 2010, but the order was vacated last year by a divided three-judge appeals court panel.

The appeals court told the federal judge in Latif’s case that rather than closely examining and analyzing each piece of evidence, the judge should have viewed the evidence as part of the totality of facts in a light most favorable to the government.

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