Supreme Court ruling could force changes, or even an end, to Guantanamo trials

Monday, June 26, 2006

The ruling could determine whether the government can proceed with military trials for certain detainees.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A former driver for Osama bin Laden may help decide the fate of dozens of Guantanamo Bay detainees, and perhaps all of them, as the Supreme Court prepares to rule on his legal challenge to the first U.S. war crimes trials since World War II.

The court, which is expected to rule as early as today, is considering a range of issues in Salim Ahmed Hamdan's case, including whether President Bush had the authority to order military trials for men captured in the war on terror and sent to the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Bush recently suggested the ruling will help him determine what should be done with all the prisoners at Guantanamo, where the United States holds about 450 men on suspicion of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban.

Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday that Bush doesn't need a court decision to close the prison, which has drawn intense international criticism. The case has nothing to do with the prison itself, they said.

"Bush can close Guantanamo, but this (court) decision can't," said Ben Wizner, an ACLU attorney who monitors Guantanamo. "That's not a question before this court."

The ruling, however, could determine whether the government can proceed with military trials for Hamdan and nine other detainees who have been charged with crimes.

Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the chief Guantanamo prosecutor, said about 65 more detainees being held at the U.S. base are likely to be charged with crimes if the Supreme Court upholds the process.

Prosecutors are preparing additional charges, including some that could incur the death penalty, Davis said in a telephone interview from Washington.

"We're pressing on, anticipating a favorable decision," he said.

Hamdan's attorneys argued that the conspiracy charge filed against him is not legitimate. The government has charged each of the 10 detainees with conspiracy, and seven of them -- including Hamdan -- currently face no other charges.

If the Supreme Court upholds Hamdan's challenge, the government could "relatively quickly" file new charges such as aiding the enemy, Davis said.

Hamdan, a 36-year-old native of Yemen, admits working as a driver for bin Laden but denies conspiring to commit terrorist attacks on the United States. He fled Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, was captured in Pakistan and turned over to U.S. forces.

The U.S. military says Hamdan was also a bodyguard for bin Laden and would have at least had knowledge of al-Qaida attacks. They also say he delivered weapons to members and associates of the terror network. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.

His military-appointed attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr Charles Swift, said the lawsuit is aimed at moving the case to the civilian court system or to a traditional military court-martial.

"This is about a fair trial, not a free pass," Swift said.

The Supreme Court was also asked to consider whether fair trial provisions of the Geneva Conventions apply to the military tribunals.

Another issue is whether the Supreme Court even has a say in the matter. The administration argues the Detainee Treatment Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by Bush on Dec. 30, strips the federal courts of much of their jurisdiction over Guantanamo detainees.

On Saturday, 14 Saudi Arabians were released from Guantanamo and transferred to their home country, leaving about 450 detainees at the prison, the Pentagon said.

One Saudi was released because U.S. officials determined the detainee was no longer an enemy combatant. The other Saudis were released after a review process determined they could be transferred.

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