US Supreme Court in U-turn on Gitmo
By Demetri Sevastopulo and Patti Waldmeir in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: June 29 2007 18:38 | Last updated: June 29 2007 22:49
The Supreme Court delivered a blow to the White House on Friday by deciding to consider whether prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay could challenge their detention in US courts.
The move is the latest setback to Bush administration efforts to bring about 80 of the 375 detainees held at Guantánamo Bay before military commissions. It also comes as the administration faces increased pressure to close the Cuba-based prison.
In February, a federal court ruled that the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress last year stripped prisoners at Guantánamo of the right to challenge their detention in US courts.
The Supreme Court re fused to hear an appeal in April, but on Friday, in a highly unusual move, the court reversed position and announced it would hear an appeal later this year.
“[We] are confident in our legal ar guments and look forward to presenting them before the court,” said Erik Ablin, a Justice Department spokesman.
Five of the nine justices are required to reverse a decision in this way. When the court previously de clined to hear the case, two of the justices, John Paul Stevens and Anthony Kennedy, said they wanted the detainees to go before military tribunals first. Eu gene Fidell, a military law attorney at Feldesman, Tuc k er, Leifer, Fidell, said the court may have been swayed by a statement submitted by an army reservist involved in legal proceedings at Guantánamo, which raised serious concerns about the integrity of the process to decide whether prisoners could be held indefinitely as “enemy combatants”.
So far, the Pentagon has only brought two prisoners, who include the alleged former driver for Osama bin Laden, before the commissions. But that effort failed after military judges threw out charges. The judges said Congress only permitted the commissions to hear the cases of “unlawful enemy combatants”, and not “enemy combatants” as they have been classified. The administration asked the judges to reconsider.
The White House is coming under increased pressure to close Guantánamo, where most of the prisoners have been held without trial for more than five years. In a stinging rebuke, Colin Powell, former secretary of state, last month urged the administration to close the prison.
Robert Gates, US defence secretary, on Friday said the Pentagon was striving harder to work through some of the legal issues that surrounded closing the prison.
“The biggest challenge is finding a statutory basis for holding prisoners who should never be released and who may or may not be able to be put on trial,” said Mr Gates. “I think that this is the challenge that faces both the administration and the Congress.”
Separately, Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat, and more than 140 members of the House of Representatives, sent a letter to the White House calling for the closure of Guantánamo.
“Guantánamo is anathema to our values as a nation, governed by the rule of law,” said Mr Moran. “Its continued operation undermines our efforts to combat terrorism, providing psychological ammunition for those bent on doing us harm.”