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Supreme Court to rule on Guantánamo trials

Edward Alden / Financial Times | November 8 2005

The US Supreme Court agreed on Monday to rule on whether President George W. Bush has the power to use specially established military commissions to try detainees held in the war on terrorism.

The court's decision to hear the case will delay further the Pentagon's efforts to find a legal mechanism for dealing with hundreds of detainees at Guant­ánamo Bay, Cuba, some of whom have been held there for nearly four years.

The Bush administration has established tribunals in which a three-member panel of military officers would rule on charges brought against the detainees. The effort has been blocked by repeated challenges in the US courts, leaving the prisoners in legal limbo.

The detainee issue has become a black eye for the administration. The United Nations is pressing the US for access to the detainees at Guantánamo, where dozens of prisoners have participated in hunger strikes in protest at their treatment. The European Union is also investigating reports that the Central Intel­ligence Agency is running secret detention centres for "high value" detainees in eastern Europe.

The Supreme Court case, expected to be heard by next March, involves Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 following the US invasion. He has acknowledged that he was the personal driver and bodyguard to Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, from 1996 to 2001. Mr Hamdan is one of five detainees, along with Australian David Hicks, named by the Pentagon to be brought before the tribunals. None of the cases has yet been heard.

A US appeals court in July overturned a lower court ruling that the administration had no authority – under either the US constitution or the Geneva Conventions – to try Mr Hamdan before the military commissions. Judge John Roberts, now the chief justice of the Supreme Court, participated in the unanimous appeals court ruling that the administration had acted well within its legal powers.

Mr Roberts has said he will recuse himself from the case, leaving the possibility of a split 4-4 decision that would uphold the appeals court ruling but leave the bigger legal issues surrounding the tribunals unresolved.

Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said the court's decision to hear the case is significant, regardless of the final ruling. "This is in itself an important reaffirmation of the rule of law, however it comes out," he said.

The Bush administration has faced growing criticisms over its handling of detainees. The White House, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, is trying to amend congressional legislation that would ban all mistreatment of prisoners, insisting that an exception be created for detainees held by the CIA.

Mr Bush, speaking to reporters in Panama on Monday, appeared to back Mr Cheney in what has become a divisive issue within the administration itself. While insisting that "we do not torture", he said the White House was working with Congress "to make sure that?.?.?.? we make it possible.?.?.? to do our job".

¦Five US soldiers have been charged with abusing detainees in Iraq, the US military said yesterday, AP reports. Charges were proffered against five soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment in connection with a September 7 incident "in which three detainees were allegedly punched and kicked while awaiting movement to a detention facility". Allegations of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad gained international notoriety in 2004 after US military personnel were charged with humiliating and assaulting detainees at the facility. Nine Army reservists were convicted in the scandal.


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