SAN FRANCISCO – A federal appeals court Monday rejected a challenge to the detention of 600 or so Afghan war prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, ruling that a group of clergy members and professors have no legal standing to intervene.
The Coalition of Clergy, Lawyers and Professors sued on behalf of the prisoners, many of whom have been held at the U.S. base in Cuba for about a year. The lawsuit alleged they have been denied access to lawyers and have been held without being charged, in violation of the Constitution.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to address that issue, and instead ruled 3-0 that the clergy do not have legal standing to seek redress for the prisoners.
The court declined to rule on whether individual prisoners could bring their own cases.
"Without allowing this lawsuit, there's no way to protect the rights of these individuals," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a University of Southern California law professor who brought the lawsuit. "The reality is you're dealing with people from another country, whose family may not even know where they are or may not have the resources to hire an American lawyer."
The government says the U.S. courts have no power over American military policy being carried out in a foreign nation as part of the war on terrorism. The coalition asserted that Guantanamo Bay is American territory, and that rights under the Constitution therefore apply.
The decision upheld a ruling by a Los Angeles federal judge in February.
"The Justice Department is pleased the 9th Circuit accepted the government's argument that the detention of Taliban and Al Qaeda combatants in Guantanamo Bay cannot be challenged by the plaintiffs," department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said.
"The military has acted within its authority in detaining noncitizens captured in combat outside of the United States," Comstock said.
In August, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of Washington, D.C., ruled in a similar case that suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters held in Cuba have no right to U.S. court hearings, meaning the military can hold them indefinitely without filing charges.
In that case, involving two Britons, an Australian and 12 detained Kuwaitis, the judge said the prisoners are not in the United States and thus do not fall under the jurisdiction of federal courts. The case is on appeal.
The San Francisco-based appeals court did not go that far, but said the dozen or so members of the coalition cannot represent the prisoners. To be granted that status, the three-judge panel said, the coalition must have a pre-existing relationship with them or prove that the prisoners are mentally incompetent to assert their rights on their own.
The coalition was demanding the government provide the prisoners with lawyers, bring them before a U.S. court, acknowledge their identity and define the charges against the prisoners, who are from about three dozen countries.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said authorities are interrogating prisoners to build legal cases and gather intelligence. He said they could stand trial before military tribunals or other courts, be sent to their home countries for prosecution or be kept indefinitely at Guantanamo.