A U.S. appeals court threw out lawsuits by hundreds of inmates challenging their detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, giving the Bush administration a victory in its handling of "enemy combatants" in the war on terrorism.
The court upheld a military-tribunal law signed Oct. 17 by President Bush that bars the inmates from pursuing their claims in federal trial courts. Tuesday's ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit applies to detainees who haven't been charged with a crime — the vast majority of about 400 inmates held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo.
"Federal courts have no jurisdiction in these cases," Judge A. Raymond Randolph wrote for the majority in the 2-1 ruling in Washington. The detainees' arguments "are creative but not cogent," he said. "To accept them would be to defy the will of Congress."
The Military Commissions Act requires inmates to go through a military review with a limited right of appeal to the D.C. circuit court, a process the appeals court said provides adequate protection for detainees' constitutional rights. The Guantanamo prison has drawn international criticism since it opened in 2002 to house suspected terrorists captured after the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush has repeatedly said he would like to close it.
The opinion by Randolph, an appointee of Bush, was joined by Judge David Sentelle, nominated by President Reagan. Judge Judith W. Rogers, appointed by President Clinton, dissented, saying she would let the cases proceed in civilian court.
"We certainly do intend to seek review in the Supreme Court," said David J. Cynamon, a lawyer for the detainees, in an interview. He said he thinks the high court will agree to hear the case given "the huge national importance and significant precedent" of today's ruling.
"We also hope this will give added impetus to the effort in Congress to restore" detainees' rights to challenge their detention, Cynamon said.
Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin said in a statement that the ruling "reaffirms the validity of the framework that Congress established."
The Military Commissions Act also set up tribunals for trials of detainees who have been charged with a crime, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is accused of being the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Transferred to Guantanamo
Mohammed and 13 other accused al-Qaeda operatives were transferred to Guantanamo Bay from secret Central Intelligence Agency prisons. Today's ruling doesn't affect plans to put them on trial.
Congress approved the military-tribunal law after the Supreme Court ruled in June that Bush lacked legal authority to try detainees on war-crimes charges in tribunals.
Rogers's dissent said the D.C. Circuit could reach its conclusion "only by misreading the historical record and ignoring the Supreme Court's well-considered and binding" language.
"The dissenting opinion will be upheld because the Supreme Court has already ruled that detainees have habeas corpus rights" even at Guantanamo, said Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican, in a statement. "While it will take the Supreme Court at least a year to decide the issue, the Congress could resolve it promptly by enacting the Leahy/Specter bill" restoring detainees' rights.
Within hours after Bush signed the new law, his administration filed a letter at the appeals court arguing that the measure stripped the Guantanamo detainees who haven't been charged with a crime of the right to go to court.
Justice Department attorneys said the new law is clear and that there was no question that Congress took away the detainees' right to a trial court review. The military review procedure is an "adequate substitute" that provides more rights than the detainees would receive in federal trial courts, government lawyers said.
Lawyers for the detainees argued that the law is vague and unconstitutional. In court papers, they said the law didn't take away their right to pursue their cases, and that any law that did so would violate the Constitution.
In a separate case, a judge in Washington on Dec. 13 threw out a detention challenge by Osama bin Laden's former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who is being held at Guantanamo Bay. U.S. District Judge James Robertson said the military-tribunal law barred federal courts from hearing the case. Hamdan won the Supreme Court ruling in June that led Congress to enact the new law.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that inmates at Guantanamo could go to federal court to challenge their confinement. After the cases were sent back to a federal trial court in Washington, two judges issued conflicting rulings on whether the inmates could continue to pursue their claims.
The D.C. Circuit hadn't ruled on appeals of those cases when Bush signed the new law.