Denial of Guantanamo detainees' rights upheld

Prosecutors to appeal ruling to allow Padilla to meet with lawyers

March 12, 2003|By Richard A. Serrano | Richard A. Serrano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - An appellate court here ruled yesterday that none of the detainees at the U.S. Naval Base on Cuba's Guantanamo Bay has the right to meet with lawyers or seek due process in court because they are not Americans and are not housed within U.S. borders.

In a separate ruling, a judge in New York ordered prosecutors to allow accused "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla, a native of Brooklyn, to meet with his attorney and fashion a defense as the government continues to hold him inside a military brig in South Carolina.

The two rulings, coming exactly 18 months after the Sept. 11 attacks, begin to firm up the federal courts' views on the rights of prisoners captured in the war on terror.

The Bush administration, which has been under sharp criticism for its handling of the detainees, scored an outright victory in the Guantanamo Bay case. And even though prosecutors lost this round in the Padilla case, they are expected to quickly appeal the ruling and repeat their position that they can hold Padilla indefinitely without charging him with a crime - as they have done since his arrest in Chicago last spring.

For civil liberties groups that have demanded justice for the detainees, the two rulings made for a bittersweet day.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia - ruling in a case brought by 12 Kuwaiti detainees and four others who all say they are not guilty - stressed that noncitizens do not enjoy the same rights as Americans to their day in court.

Additionally, the appellate court said, because the naval base is rented from the Cuban government, the U.S. courts have no power over the 650 non-U.S. citizens there.

"The Constitution does not entitle the detainees to due process," said the unanimous three-member panel.

A group of Washington lawyers, headed by Thomas B. Wilner, urged the appellate court late last year to let the 12 Kuwaitis meet with lawyers to form a defense to win their release from Guantanamo Bay.

The Kuwaitis have maintained that they were merely doing charity work and other service in and around Afghanistan while the United States was waging its war on terror there and were wrongly swept up by American troops.

"The court's decision raises profound questions of policy that ought to be of concern to all Americans," a deeply disappointed Wilner said, noting that U.S. citizens could find themselves in the same situation overseas, particularly if war comes with Iraq.

The ruling also drew fire from several civil rights groups.

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, for instance, called upon the administration to "develop and state publicly" its criteria for holding people in Cuba, and to announce a clear "decision-making policy and criteria for returning detainees to their home countries."

"Many of these people have been held for a year or more," the committee said. "The U.S. government's position that the detainees are enemy combatants, and that they may be held until the global war against terrorism is concluded, is untenable."

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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