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U.S.: Supreme Court Rules Against Bush, Reaffirms Prisoners' Rights

  • Andrew Tully

The U.S. Supreme Court has dealt a blow to President George W. Bush's strategy in the war on terrorism. In presenting its case before the court two months ago, the Bush administration argued that in order to protect the American people from terrorist attacks, it has the right to detain and interrogate Taliban and Al-Qaeda suspects captured in Afghanistan without interference from the courts. But the country's highest court has ruled that the administration must allow access to American courts for all prisoners, whether they are U.S. citizens or foreigners.

Washington, 30 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government's treatment of prisoners held in the name of the war on terrorism has long been a source of concern to human rights advocates, even before the disclosure of abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to Jamie Fellner, the director of U.S. programs at the New York offices of Human Rights Watch, the rulings announced on 28 June by the U.S. Supreme Court put many of these concerns to rest.

Fellner tells RFE/RL that the rulings reassert the role of the courts in ensuring that no one is deprived of their liberty without legal recourse.

Until this week's rulings, Fellner believes the United States had been using national security as an excuse to trample human rights. She says this put the Bush administration in some unsavory company.

"Every single dictatorship which arbitrarily detains people says it's for national security," Fellner says. "The court is saying, 'You can't just wave this magic word -- national security, war on terror, whatever -- and suddenly eviscerate all the due-process protections that previously existed. And you can't simply lock people up someplace else, like in Guantanamo, and say, 'Aha, now we've escaped the court's scrutiny.' It's a very strong affirmation of the rule of law."

On 28 June, the Supreme Court ruled in two cases involving several prisoners. Both cases focused on what is known under U.S. law as "habeas corpus" -- the right of a prisoner to argue before a court that he or she is being wrongfully detained. Habeas corpus is at the very core of U.S. justice.

Arguing for the Bush administration in April, Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement said that because the prisoners were captured on the battlefield, they should face only military justice.

Clement said most of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay -- because it was inconvenient -- had had no reviews by military arbiters to determine whether they were enemy combatants or were merely innocents caught in a broad dragnet in Afghanistan.

In questioning Clement that day, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor gave a preview of the opinion she would eventually write. She rejected the administration's argument and asked: "How about...a neutral decisionmaker of some kind, perhaps in the military? Is that so extreme that it should not be required?"

In this week’s opinion, O'Connor wrote that to limit the role of civil courts in such cases would be to take rightful power from the judicial branch of government and give it to the executive branch.

The Bush administration also had argued that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are not entitled to hearings before U.S. courts because the naval station is in Cuba -- outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. The Supreme Court essentially rejected that argument, too.

Robert Levy specializes in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, a private policy research center in Washington. He tells RFE/RL that the core of the Supreme Court decisions is the "checks and balances" among the three branches of government -- the executive, the judicial, and the legislative.

Levy notes that U.S. presidents in the past have abused their powers during war. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War in the 1860s, and Franklin Roosevelt sent Japanese-Americans and resident aliens to internment camps during World War II.

But Levy notes that the Supreme Court declared Lincoln's action unconstitutional, and the United States has since paid reparations to the Japanese victims of internment.

In this week's decisions, Levy says, the Supreme Court reined in the zeal with which the Bush administration has pursued its war against terrorism.

"This is a reaffirmation of our checks and balances. Checks and balances are alive and well, and the Supreme Court, I think, performed a very important and useful service in reaffirming that for not just American citizens, but for people overseas," Levy says.

The Supreme Court rulings apparently caught the Bush administration by surprise. The Voice of America reports that an internal Pentagon document anticipated decisions in favor of the Bush administration and had only prepared a media strategy based on such rulings.

The Supreme Court this week issued a third related ruling in the case of Jose Padilla. Padilla is a U.S. citizen accused of being an enemy combatant. He was arrested in the United States and wants to argue against his detention before a U.S. court.

The justices declined to rule on Padilla's case because it was filed in the wrong court. His appeal was filed in a federal court in New York. The Supreme Court decided that it should be refiled in a federal court in the southern state of South Carolina, where Padilla is being held.

Padilla's lawyers said they would promptly refile their case in South Carolina, but the Supreme Court's current term ended on 29 June. The case likely will be heard when the court's next term begins in October.