WASHINGTON – A federal judge ruled Wednesday that suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters held in Cuba do not have a right to U.S. court hearings, allowing the military to hold them indefinitely without filing charges.
The 600 men held at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are not in the United States and thus do not fall under the jurisdiction of federal courts, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said.
The ruling involved Britons Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal and Australian David Hicks, who are being held at Guantanamo Bay. They were captured while fighting with Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, U.S. officials say.
The men's families hired lawyers in the United States who sued the Bush administration, demanding that the men be allowed to argue their cases before a federal judge.
But Kollar-Kotelly ruled that courts have no jurisdiction because the nation's "leased military bases abroad, which continue under the sovereignty of foreign nations, hostile or friendly" are not U.S. territory.
The judge also rejected the relatives' argument that the detained men should have the same right to U.S. courts as Cuban citizens who have requested political asylum and gained entry into the United States.
"The crucial distinction in their rights as aliens is that [they] had been given some form of process by the government of the United States," the judge wrote in her opinion. "It is undisputed that the individuals held at Guantanamo Bay do not seek to become citizens."
The judge pointed out that the men have not been charged with any legal offenses, and thus, are not being deprived of due process.
Barbara Olshansky, a legal director for the civil rights group representing the men, said the judge based her decision on "irrelevant and ill-reasoned" precedents.
"We find the decision extremely troubling," said Olshansky, who works for The Center for Constitutional Rights. "The court has left the petitioners in legal limbo without recourse. They are being held at the unfettered discretion of the United States and have nowhere to turn."
Some legal experts said Wednesday's ruling was the first significant legal support for the government's detainment policy and has broad implications for the war on terrorism.
"This is a federal court weighing in, saying that those people detained at U.S. bases outside the country are, in essence, not being held in the United States," said Justin Willard, a constitutional lawyer in Washington. "There is no reason why this tactic couldn't be used indefinitely. Why bring a suspected terrorist to Washington when you can put them in Cuba and never have to answer questions about who they are or what they've done?"
In November, President Bush and his administration ordered the detainees held and not accorded protections as prisoners of war on grounds they are among the most dangerous Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters captured during the U.S.-led battle in Afghanistan.
Hicks, 26, allegedly threatened to kill an American upon his arrival at Guantanamo Bay, U.S. officials said.
The three prisoners named in the complaint are being held indefinitely.
No treaty or U.S. law grants prisoners such as those at Guantanamo the right to a lawyer. That would change if they were charged with a crime. Prisoners of war also merit legal protections not being given the Guantanamo detainees.
The Nov. 13 executive order violates the Constitution's guarantee of due process, to which any foreign nationals are entitled, according to the complaint. Among other things, the complaint accuses Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert and Col. Terry Carrico of withholding the right to an attorney from the prisoners.
Lehnert was commander of the task force running the detention operation, and Carrico was commandant of a prison camp at Guantanamo.
The petition listed numerous efforts by the three men's families to contact them, which were "either rebuffed or ignored" by U.S. officials. The men have been allowed to write letters to their families, screened by U.S. officials, in which they asked for lawyers.
Their attorney has said the situation could lead to the men being denied representation even as they appear before a military tribunal with authority to impose the death penalty.
The judge's ruling took issue with the plaintiff's argument that the detainees would be held indefinitely, stating that global courts and the United Nations have the power to inquire about where detainees are being held and for how long.