Court blow for Guantánamo prisoners
By Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: February 20 2007 21:57 | Last updated: February 20 2007 21:57
Prisoners at Guantánamo Bay cannot challenge their imprisonment at the US detention facility, an appeals court said on Tuesday, in delivering a significant legal victory to the White House.
The DC court of appeals ruled 2-1 that recent legislation precluded prisoners at the Cuba-based prison from contesting their detention in US civilian courts. The ruling comes as the Pentagon prepares to bring several detainees before the military commissions.
Congress passed the Military Commissions Act last year after the Supreme Court ruled that the original structure of the military commissions were unconstitutional. But the MCA also stripped detainees of habeas corpus - the right to appeal their detention in the US civil court system.
In dismissing the case brought by inmates at Guantánamo contesting their imprisonment, Judge Randolph Raymond wrote Tuesday that the detainees had provided arguments that were “creative but not cogent”, and that accepting them “would be to defy the will of Congress”.
Human rights groups and lawyers for the detainees have argued that the MCA violates the constitution, which says habeas can only be suspended in cases of “rebellion or invasion”. But Judge Raymond concluded that Congress was not obliged to provide the same standard for non-US citizens.
But Judge Judith Rogers, in a dissenting opinion, wrote that her colleagues had misconstrued the ability of Congress to suspend the right in the case of the Guantánamo detainees. She said Congress was obliged to provide an “dequate alternative remedy” under the constitution, but had not done so.
“The MCA is therefore void and does not deprive this court or the district courts of jurisdiction,” she wrote.
Lawyers for the detainees said Tuesday they would appeal to the Supreme Court. Human rights experts said the ruling underscored the need for Congress to reinstate the right for detainees.
“The ruling highlights the need for Congress to act - and to do so quickly - to restore what is amongst the most important checks on executive overreaching,” said Jennifer Daskal, Washington advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
Patrick Leahy and Arlen Specter, the top Democrat and Republican lawmakers on the Senate judiciary committee, have introduced legislation that would restore the right of habeas to detainees at Guantanamo.
“I believe the dissenting opinion will be upheld because the Supreme Court has already ruled that detainees have habeas corpus rights even though they are at Guantanamo Bay,” Mr Specter said yesterday. “While it will take the Supreme Court at least a year to decide the issue, the Congress could resolve it promptly by enacting the Leahy/Specter bill which restores habeas corpus rights.”
Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican senator who was instrumental in the move to strip habeas rights, yesterday welcomed the decision, which he said would prevent “frivolous” lawsuits.
“Never in the history of warfare have enemy prisoners been able to bring lawsuits about their detention,” said Mr Graham. “Thousands of Germans and Japanese soldiers were captured and held by the military during World War II. Not one case was allowed in federal court where they were allowed to sue for their release. Our rules for the War on Terror should be no different.”
Human Rights First said the ruling ran “counter to one of the most important checks on unbridled executive power enshrined in the US Constitution”.
“If allowed to stand, this ruling would permit the government to hold prisoners, potentially indefinitely, without having to show to a court of law why the person has been detained,” said Hina Shamsi of Human Rights First. “US courts are well able to decide detention cases that raise both national security and individual liberties concerns.”