Detainees' claims denied

U.S. appellate panel says Gitmo prisoners lack legal standing

February 21, 2007|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In a victory for the White House, a U.S. appeals court yesterday threw out the legal claims brought on behalf of the hundreds of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and ruled they do not have a right to plead their innocence in an American court.

In a 2-1 decision, the judges said the Constitution does not extend the right of "habeas corpus" to non-citizens who are held outside the sovereign territory of this country. "Cuba - not the United States - has sovereignty over Guantanamo Bay," wrote Judge A. Raymond Randolph.

The ruling sets the stage for a historic showdown in the Supreme Court over whether the White House and Congress can deny habeas corpus - the right to go before a judge and ask to be released - to some persons who are held for years without charges.

Yesterday's decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington vindicates, at least for now, a tactical move made by White House lawyers shortly after the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2002. They wanted the military to have power to indefinitely hold and intensively interrogate foreign fighters and suspected terrorists without interference from the federal courts. They chose the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because it was nearby but outside the territory of the United States.

For the nearly five years since, civil libertarians and advocates for the detainees have been trying to win a hearing before an independent judge. There, they could argue that at least some of these men were not terrorists and were being held wrongly.

The Bush administration has fought to prevent these men from having their claims heard in court. Meanwhile, across Europe and throughout much of the world, Guantanamo Bay has come to symbolize what the administration's critics say are harsh tactics and contempt for international opinion.

No one has been tried for a terrorist offense. And though former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld once referred to them as the "worst of the worst," hundreds of the Guantanamo detainees have been released and sent back to their home countries.

Late last year, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, which made clear that "enemy combatants" held outside the United States may not file claims in U.S. courts. Yesterday's ruling upheld that law. Lawyers for the detainees condemned the ruling.

"This decision empowers the president to do whatever he wishes to prisoners without any legal limitation so long as he does it offshore. [It] encourages such notorious practices as extraordinary rendition and contempt for international human rights law," said Shayana Kadidal, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.

Under pressure from lawsuits that reached the high court in 2004, the Pentagon agreed reluctantly to give the detainees a "status review hearing" before several military officers. But often, in these hearings, the detained men are not told about the evidence that resulted in their being held.

Last year, Congress also set rules for the coming military trials. Currently, about 395 detainees are held at Guantanamo Bay. Pentagon officials say they expect about 80 of them to be put on trial. Another approximately 85 are due to be released or transferred to another country.

That leaves about 230 detainees who remain in a legal limbo. They have no right to appeal the military's decision to continue holding them. At the same time, military officials do not plan to put them on trial.

Lawyers for the detainees said they will take their case to the Supreme Court. Three years ago, the high court dealt the administration a rebuke and opened the courthouse door for the Guantanamo detainees. In a 6-3 ruling in Rasul v. Bush, the justices said the long-standing federal law on habeas corpus gave all persons a right to go to court.

But last year the GOP-controlled Congress closed the door again, with the Military Commissions Act. This year, with the Democrats in control, several senators vowed they would amend the law to restore the traditional right to habeas corpus for all. But their efforts would face an almost certain veto by President Bush.

In yesterday's decision, Judges Randolph and David B. Sentelle said the right to habeas corpus is limited to sovereign U.S. territory.

"The Constitution does not confer rights on aliens with property or presence within the United States," they said.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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