SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – A U.S. Supreme Court (search) ruling on the rights of hundreds of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, will unleash a flurry of legal challenges by finally allowing captives to take their cases before U.S. civilian courts, human rights lawyers said.
For the past two and half years, the United States has maintained its remote naval base in Cuba was beyond the reach of U.S. courts, but the Supreme Court disagreed in a ruling Monday, bringing legal options to nearly 600 prisoners from 42 countries.
"We will be filing hundreds of cases," said Qatari lawyer Najeeb al-Nauimi, who belongs to a committee of defense lawyers claiming to represent more than 300 detainees. "The Supreme Court reinstated our trust in the American judicial system."
Al-Nauimi, a former Qatari justice minister, said he is personally representing about 90 detainees from countries ranging from Yemen to Algeria, and that he will seek to have them released by filing challenges starting next week in federal court in Washington D.C.
"It is the beginning of the end," he said in a phone interview from Qatar.
Questions remain about how cases will proceed and how the military will respond to lawyers' requests to meet with detainees. So far only four have been allowed to meet attorneys, and only three prisoners have been charged.
"Whatever we're told to do we'll do," said Army Lt. Col. Leon Sumpter, a spokesman at Guantanamo. "We'll definitely get guidance on how to implement that (new ruling)."
The U.S. government has maintained that the prisoners, suspected of links to Al Qaeda (search) and Afghanistan's fallen Taliban regime, are "enemy combatants" and not prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.
Critics have accused the U.S. government of making Guantanamo a legal "black hole" since prisoners began arriving in January 2002.
"The lesson of the decision is that there is no prison beyond the reach of domestic law," said Joe Margulies, a Minneapolis lawyer who was lead counsel in the Supreme Court case on behalf of two Australian detainees and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.
Lawyer Barbara Olshansky said the center and other lawyers already have petitions pending for about 20 detainees asking the government to demonstrate why they are being held, and is filing petitions on behalf of 60 more detainees in federal court in Washington.
"It is now incumbent on the government to respond and to come up with some individualized evidence that these people did something wrong," Margulies said. "We'll seek access to our clients to begin rebutting whatever information the government is going to come forward with."
The decision came as the military was preparing to try the detainees at the first U.S. military tribunals since the end of World War II.
"This is a great day for justice, one that we did not think we could obtain," Terry Hicks, the father of Australian detainee David Hicks, said in a statement.
Because Hicks already faces war crimes conspiracy and other charges, lawyers plan to treat his case differently, said Olshansky. She said lawyers will file a lawsuit within two or three weeks arguing such tribunals must be convened by Congress — not by the president — and that they wouldn't offer a fair trial.
The U.S. military maintains the tribunals, which it calls commissions, would offer full and fair trials. No date has been set for the first trial.
One federal lawsuit is already pending in Seattle challenging the lawfulness of tribunals, on behalf of detainee Salim Ahmed Salim Hamdan of Yemen. His lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, said he planned to meet with Hamdan on Tuesday at Guantanamo and tell him of the Supreme Court ruling.
"After two and a half years, he will get a hearing — that's gratifying to be able to tell him," Swift said.