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01 February 2005

Military Tribunals a Denial of Detainees' Rights, Judge Rules

Appeal likely because ruling conflicts with previous court decision

By Alexandra Abboud
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- A U.S. federal district judge ruled on January 31 that the special military tribunals used to determine the legal status of detainees at the U.S. Naval Base in Guántanamo Bay are illegal.

Judge Joyce Hens Green of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the tribunals deny detainees constitutional legal rights such as the right to consult an attorney and to confront any evidence being used against them, and that the detainees had the right to have a U.S. court of law determine if they were lawfully detained. 

Green’s findings conflict with a decision by a judge from the same court two weeks earlier in a separate case brought by different detainees that addressed the same issues.   The ruling in the previous case stated that the Guántanamo detainees did not have a right to have their detentions examined in federal court, a process known as a writ of habeas corpus.

The U.S. Department of Justice in a January 31 statement said that the original ruling that dismissed the claims made by other Guántanamo detainees was correct.  “There is no basis in the Constitution, or in history, for according aliens captured by the military outside the United States and classified as enemy combatants 'due process' rights under the Constitution based on the mere fact that they are confined -- for operational and security reasons -- on foreign property that has been leased by the United States,” the statement said.

Ultimately, the two conflicting findings will have to be reconciled in a court of appeals and might even be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The “Combatant Status Review Tribunals” at issue were established by the Defense Department as a direct result of a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that the military could not simply declare the fighters enemy combatants but must hold hearings to determine if detainees being held at Guántanamo Bay were “unlawful combatants” and therefore properly detained.

Under international law, unlawful or enemy combatants are fighters who are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention, which protects prisoners of war, because they do not act under the accepted rules of war.

It is likely that the rulings will not soon have a direct affect on Guántanamo Bay detainees because the cases still face a lengthy appeals process. In her ruling, Green also stated that no prisoners would be set free as a result of her findings.