Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Appeals Court Says Gitmo Detainees Can't Challenge Detention

A divided judicial panel ruled this morning that hundreds of foreign nationals detained for as long as five years at a military prison in Guantanamo Bay do not have rights to challenge their indefinite imprisonment through the U.S. court system.

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that Congress's 2006 Military Commissions Act firmly blocked detainees from trying to appeal the president's decision to hold them without charges and without any promise of release.

Many detainees, viewed by the military as potential terrorism suspects or people with valuable information about terrorist plots, have been seeking through pro bono lawyers to challenge their imprisonment using a longstanding American legal right called the writ of habeas corpus.

But the Military Commissions Act, passed by Congress at the urging of President Bush last fall, stripped detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of that right. The legislation was drafted after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Bush administration's original rules for trying detainees before military commissions was unconstitutional.

In arguing the case decided today by the appeals court, attorneys for the detainees had said the Military Commissions Act should not apply to challenges already pending before the court.

But, given the new laws passed by Congress, "federal courts have no jurisdiction in these cases," Circuit Judge A. Raymond Randolph wrote for the panel.

"Everyone who has followed the interaction between Congress and the Supreme Court knows full well that one of the primary purposes of the [Military Commissions Act] was to overrule" the Supreme Court's decision to give detainees access to federal courts, Randolph wrote. "Everyone, that is, except the detainees."

Lawyers for the detainees said they had expected the panel to rule against them, but were glad to receive the ruling after a two-year delay, so they could appeal it directly to the Supreme Court.

In a lengthy dissent to the ruling, Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote that the Military Commissions Act did not square with the Constitution or history, because it would suspend the writ of habeas corpus indefinitely, even when there was no war on U.S. soil.

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