Federal judges in the District could order some detainees to be released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after weighing security concerns and the evidence against them, according to a Supreme Court ruling released Thursday.
In a 5-4 decision that marked the court’s third reproach of the Bush administration’s treatment of terrorism suspects, the court ruled that the detainees - some of whom have been imprisoned for six years without charges being brought against them - are entitled to have their cases heard in federal courts.
“The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the court’s majority.
In dissent, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the ruling “strikes down as inadequate the most generous set of procedural protections ever afforded aliens detained by this country as enemy combatants.”
Legal experts said the court’s ruling redefines the rights of military detainees.
Their cases will be heard in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, according to Royce C. Lamberth, the court’s chief judge.
President Bush, who was traveling in Europe Thursday, said he disagreed with the court’s ruling but would abide by it. “It was a deeply divided court, and I strongly agree with those who dissented,” he said.
Mr. Bush said his administration would study the ruling and consider new legislation to mitigate the ruling’s effects.
“We’ll do this with this in mind - to determine whether or not additional legislation might be appropriate so we can safely say to the American people, ‘We’re doing everything we can to protect you,’” the president said.
After the Supreme Court issued two earlier rulings that rebuked the administration’s handling of detainees, Congress changed the law to allow the detentions to continue without trials.
The court’s ruling restored the detainees’ rights under habeas corpus, a centuries-old right that allows people to challenge their imprisonment. But the ruling itself doesn’t allow for them to be released immediately.
Additionally , the ruling cast doubt on whether the military tribunals set up to try the detainees will proceed. Currently, 19 detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others accused of plotting the Sept. 11 , attacks, are facing trial by tribunal - and the Pentagon has said it plans to try as many as 80 detainees at Guatanamo.
“It’s the first time the Supreme Court has said the Constitution protects the right” to a civilian court hearing for military detainees, said Steve Vladeck, an American University law professor who co-authored a legal brief supporting the prisoners’ right to trial.
About 270 men are imprisoned at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba after having been classified as enemy combatants and held on suspicion of links to al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Much of the evidence the government used to justify the detentions has been kept secret for national security reasons, and the ruling could force the government to reveal some of the information, said Orin Kerr, a George Washington University Law School professor who testified before the Senate last year on constitutional rights of detainees.
“They could seal the courtroom, but it does mean the detainees will get access to the information,” Mr. Kerr said, adding that the government is unlikely to allow the detainees to be released on bail because of national security concerns.
The ruling resurrects many detainee lawsuits that federal judges put on hold as they awaited the Supreme Court ruling in Boumediene v. Bush. Judges assigned to hear the cases plan to meet within days to decide how they will handle them.
The administration opened the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The prison has been harshly criticized at home and overseas for detentions without trials and aggressive interrogations of prisoners.
The Supreme Court said that the detainees have constitutional rights and that the Bush administration’s system for classifying them as enemy combatants and reviewing evidence against them is inadequate.
But Chief Justice Roberts said the “political branches crafted these procedures amidst an ongoing military conflict, after much careful investigation and thorough debate. The court rejects them today out of hand …”
Justices Samuel A. Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also dissented.
Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens joined Justice Kennedy in the majority.
The Bush administration has argued the detainees have few rights, in part because they are not being held on U.S. soil. Guantanamo has been leased from Cuba since 1903.
However, the court’s ruling said the legal status of the land was irrelevant to the constitutional rights of detainees by the U.S. government.
The Supreme Court’s ruling eliminates the need to continue operating the prison at Guantanamo, said David Cole, a Georgetown University Law Center constitutional law professor.
“I think it will speed the process of closing Guantanamo,” Mr. Cole said. “The whole idea behind Guantanamo was to put the detainees beyond the reach of the law. The Supreme Court has said that you can’t do that.”
Mr. Bush has said he would like to close the facility after other countries take the prisoners who are there.
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