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U.S.: Supreme Court Bans Guantanamo Tribunals

The Guantanamo Bay detention center (epa) The highest court in the United States deals another blow to the U.S. administration's conduct of the War on Terror, ruling that its system of military tribunals breaches national law and international human rights conventions.

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The highest court in the United States has banned the trial of terrorist suspects in special military courts, ruling that the establishment of "military commissions" at the U.S. detention center on Guantanamo Bay contravenes both U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions.

The decision by the Supreme Court does not require the closure of the center, but it deals a severe blow to the U.S. administration's legal strategy towards dealing with suspected terrorists. U.S. President George W. Bush believes the "illegal combatants" kept at Guantanamo are not entitled to the protections afforded by international rules governing conventional warfare.

The Supreme Court ruled that, by setting up the military commissions, Bush violated the United States' jealously guarded separation of powers, under which the executive branch may not assume the authority of either the judiciary or the legislative branch.

The court said any such power would have to have been granted the president by Congress. The Supreme Court added that Bush can still go to Congress and ask for authority to use the "military commissions."

It also said "the procedures adopted" in the tribunals "violate the Geneva Conventions."

A Tight Decision

Many world leaders, including allies of the United States, have urged Bush to shut down the detention center at Guantanamo. Critics say the facility violates the Geneva Convention rules on the treatment of prisoners.

Criticism has heightened further since three detainees committed suicide this June.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court rejected Washington's assertion that it had the authority to deny terrorism suspects access to courts or lawyers.

During the latest U.S.-European Union summit, held in Vienna on June 21, the U.S. leader seemed resigned to the worldwide unpopularity of the detention centers and his plans to try detainees in military tribunals.

Bush said he had "shared with" European leaders his "deep desire to end this program," but he insisted that "we are not going to let people out on the street that will do you harm."

Bush said on June 29 that he will abide by the court's decision.

He also said that, "to the extent that the Congress is given any latitude to develop a way forward using military tribunals, we will work with [Congress]."

The Supreme Court ruling does not address the legality of using Guantanamo Bay as a detention center, just the issue of military trials.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court rejected Washington's assertion that it had the authority to deny terrorism suspects access to courts or lawyers.

The justices voted five to three against the administration on this occasion. One member of the panel, Chief Justice John Roberts, did not participate because he had been involved as a judge in a Court of Appeals hearing of the case before he joined the Supreme Court.

The case was brought by Salim Ahmed Hamdan, one of about 450 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Hamdan, a Yemeni, worked as a driver and guard for Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, which the U.S. government blames for the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001.

Hamdan was one of 10 detainees scheduled to be tried by a Guantanamo tribunal this year.

Three of the court's justices filed dissents to the majority opinion. One, Justice Clarence Thomas, complained that the decision would "sorely hamper the president's ability to confront and defeat a new and deadly enemy."