|U.S. Can Hold Citizens As Combatants
Associated Press 01/09/03: Curt Anderson
Original Link: http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/ap/20030108/ap_on_go_ot/
WASHINGTON - A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that the government can hold U.S. citizens as enemy combatants during wartime without the constitutional protections afforded Americans in criminal prosecutions.
In overturning a lower court ruling, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., said the status of 22-year-old Yaser Esam Hamdi as a citizen did not change the fact he was captured in Afghanistan while fighting alongside Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.
"Judicial review does not disappear during wartime, but the review of battlefield captures in overseas conflicts is a highly deferential one" to the government, the three-judge panel wrote.
Hamdi, the court added, is not charged with a crime in the United States but is being held under "well-established laws and customs of war ... the fact that he is a citizen does not affect the legality of his detention as an enemy combatant."
Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed the decision, calling it "an important victory for the president's ability to protect the American people in times of war."
"Detention of enemy combatants prevents them from rejoining the enemy and continuing to fight against America and its allies, and has long been upheld by our nation's courts, regardless of the citizenship of the enemy combatant," Ashcroft said in a statement.
Hamdi was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 after a prison uprising by suspected Taliban and al-Qaida members. He was at the Mazar-e-Sharif prison uprising — where fellow U.S. citizen John Walker Lindh was captured — and later was transported along with hundreds of other alleged enemy soldiers to a prison at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
It later was discovered Hamdi had been born in Louisiana to Saudi parents. Hamdi and his family returned to Saudi Arabia while he still was a toddler, but he never renounced his U.S. citizenship.
Hamdi has been held in a naval brig in Norfolk, Va., since April.
His case is seen by some as a major legal test case to determine the government's ability to hold citizens without access to a lawyer or the courts. If Hamdi can be imprisoned in a military jail with few of the constitutional protections afforded Americans facing criminal prosecution, critics say, then other U.S. citizens could be similarly held.
A federal judge in Norfolk, Va., agreed, ruling in August that Hamdi should at least have a right to a lawyer and a chance to see the government's evidence against him.
The circuit court in Richmond, Va., agreed that the case raises serious questions about the rights of citizens but concluded that, in wartime, the government's authority is supreme in deciding who may be held indefinitely.
Hamdi, the judges said, was "squarely within the zone of active combat" when captured and is being lawfully detained. The courts, they added, have only limited authority to intervene in such national security matters.
"Any effort to ascertain the facts concerning the petitioner's conduct while amongst the nation's enemies would entail an unacceptable risk of obstructing war efforts authorized by Congress and undertaken by the executive branch," the 54-page opinion said.
The court declined, however, to address the rights of U.S. citizens who might be held as enemy combatants if captured on U.S. soil. Their opinion is confined to a citizen who takes up arms against the United States in a foreign country.
The three circuit judges deciding the case were James Harvie Wilkinson III and William W. Wilkins, both appointed by President Reagan, and William B. Traxler, who was appointed by President Clinton. Their decision was unanimous.