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High Court to Consider Application of Legal Rights of Guantanamo Bay Detainees

January 23, 2004 -- Over 600 detainees at Camps X-Ray and Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have not been granted trials or access to lawyers. Considered foreign enemies of the United States, the prisoners have been without hope or basic rights for almost two years. Now the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether they can be held indefinitely without court review of their detention.

A vast array of human rights, legal, and religious groups have filed amicus briefs supporting several prisoners' cases, which the High Court expects to consider within the next few months. These organizations include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and Public Justice, as well as diverse religious groups representing Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Various British Members of Parliament and retired U.S. military officers also filed supporting briefs.

Fred Korematsu, a Japanese-American who was interned during World War II, filed an amicus brief based on his own unique life experiences. As a young man, he had challenged the constitutionality of President Roosevelt's Executive order that allowed Americans of Japanese descent to be imprisoned in the Western United States during war time. He lost that case, and was arrested, only to be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom a half century later for his courage in opposing injustice (Korematsu v. United States, 323 US 214; 1944). "We should be vigilant to make sure this never happens again," he said when accepting the award. He bases his current brief on "ensuring Americans do not forget the lessons of their own history," and states that the United States unnecessarily restricts civil liberties during times of war.

Lower Court Ruling Against Rights of Detainees

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington D.C. Circuit had ruled that the Guantanamo prisoners could not bring their cases before a U.S. civilian court (Al Odah et al. v. United States of America, No. 025-251, consolidated with Nos. 02-5284, 02-5288). Since the foreign prisoners were located outside the United States, the federal courts did not have the authority or reach (jurisdiction) to consider whether a legal review was necessary and could not hear their complaints.

The prisoners and the amicus briefs challenge the Court of Appeals decision on several grounds, making these points:

  • The Guantanamo detention violates the Geneva convention.
  • The United States Constitution does allow due process for the detainees.
  • Denying judicial review is contrary to international law and does nothing to enhance United States security.

"What we are saying is that there is no land without law. The law of the United States requires due process, and so does international law," said Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, commenting on the situation for the U.S. National Council of Churches (NCC News, January 14, 2004). Deborah Pearlstein of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights echoes that belief. "The Court should make clear that the Guantanamo prisoners have some means for challenging the legality of their detention by the United States," she commented. "These cases will mark the Supreme Court's most important decision in a generation regarding the rights of non-citizens before U.S. courts."

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