U.S. tribunals begin ruling on detainees

4 `enemy combatants' to remain in custody at Guantanamo Bay

August 14, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In their first decisions, military tribunals considering the status of the people held at the United States naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, ruled yesterday that four detainees had properly been designated as enemy combatants who may be held there indefinitely.

The tribunals, which opened for business on July 30 and which resemble courts only in broad outline, will ultimately consider the status of all of the nearly 600 people held at Guantanamo. Their rulings yesterday were more surprising for their speed than their substance.

The government did not release the names or nationalities of the four men involved or even disclose whether they had appeared at their hearings. At a news briefing, Gordon R. England, the secretary of the Navy, said 11 of the 21 detainees whose hearings had been held so far decided not to participate.

Lawyers for some of the detainees said the tribunals, known formally as Combatant Status Review Tribunals, did not comply with rulings of the Supreme Court in June requiring that people held as unlawful enemy combatants be able to challenge their detentions in a fair proceeding with due-process protections.

"The government is treating a historic loss in the Supreme Court as though it were a suggestion slip," said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University who has assisted in the representation of some detainees.

Lawyers for the detainees say federal court is the proper forum for adjudicating their rights. They have filed 13 petitions on behalf of 71 detainees before five judges, all in U.S. District Court in Washington, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents some detainees.

The judges are considering preliminary issues in those cases.

"We're not near the merits," Jeffrey E. Fogel, the center's legal director, said of the court proceedings. "We're fighting over the right to meet with our clients. You can't litigate these cases if you can't meet with your clients."

Though the government will presumably rely on the Guantanamo tribunals' decisions in court as adequate to justify the detentions, it is not clear whether federal judges will defer to the tribunals.

The Supreme Court gave the lower courts only limited guidance about how those held may challenge their detentions.

"If you look at the rudiments of due process," Freedman said, "these panels don't start to begin to meet it."

The government and lawyers for the detainees also differ on what it means to be an enemy combatant.

At yesterday's news briefing, England said he expected the tribunals to finish their work in the next several months. More than 150 cases are in progress, he said.

Though the proceedings are moving with lightning speed by civilian judicial standards, England expressed frustration at the pace.

"It's a harder process than we had earlier anticipated," he said. "That is, it's more time-consuming just to do all of the appropriate translation, interviews with detainees themselves, having the right translators available, being able to translate the information."

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