Wednesday, June 28, 2006

US court prepares ruling on Guantanamo tribunals

US court prepares ruling on Guantanamo tribunals
By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing a potential landmark ruling that could determine the fate of the military tribunals created by President George W. Bush to try Guantanamo prisoners for war crimes.

The ruling by the nation's highest court, which is expected later this week, will be one of the most significant presidential war powers cases since World War Two and could determine whether the tribunals are lawful.

No one outside the court knows which day the ruling will come or how the justices will decide the myriad of issues in a challenge to the tribunals by Guantanamo prisoner Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who was Osama bin Laden's driver in Afghanistan.

After the September 11 attacks, Bush established special war crimes tribunals for trying prisoners held at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where the U.S. government says three prisoners killed themselves about two weeks ago.

Of about 450 prisoners at Guantanamo, only Hamdan and nine others face charges before a tribunal. Human rights groups have criticized the tribunals, formally called military commissions, for being fundamentally unfair.

Hamdan's lawyers are challenging Bush's power to create the tribunals and said he is covered by Geneva Convention, and therefore rules governing U.S. courts-martial should be applied.

The ruling has been eagerly awaited by administration officials, who want to bring charges against more prisoners, and by groups like Human Rights Watch, which has called on Bush to close the Guantanamo prison camp.

"The Supreme Court could decide that the military commissions set up at Guantanamo were not lawfully established, that their rules violate the law or that the commissions are inappropriate for this set of detainees," said Katherine Newell Bierman of Human Rights Watch.

"On the other hand, the court could allow the military commissions to proceed as established under the current rules," she said.


Bierman and others said the ruling only will address the military tribunals, not broader issues such as whether the base should be closed.

At a news conference in Vienna last week, Bush said he was awaiting the Supreme Court's ruling before deciding the proper forum to try Guantanamo prisoners.

In Tel Aviv, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the court's decision may answer questions about the use of military commissions and the applicability of the Geneva Conventions, which provide prisoners greater legal rights.

"That (ruling) will provide additional clarity," he said.

"We made the best judgment we can -- the executive branch -- based on court precedent, based upon our reading of the law, based upon our reading of the U.S. Constitution," Gonzales said. "At the end of the day, it is up to the courts to make the decision as to whether or not we made the right call."

"I think by and large the courts have vindicated our decisions. In some cases, the courts have disagreed. And when that happens, we ... meet the mandates of the court," he said.

In its other rulings on Bush's policies in the war on terrorism, the Supreme Court issued a pair of decisions two years ago that placed limits on the president's powers and allowed Guantanamo prisoners to bring lawsuits in U.S. courts.

Neal Katyal, a Georgetown University law professor who argued Hamdan's case before the Supreme Court, declined comment on how the justices might rule.

The ruling will involve eight of the nine court members. Chief Justice John Roberts, who was appointed by Bush, has removed himself because he previously was on a U.S. appeals court panel that ruled for the Bush administration in the Hamdan case.

(additional reporting by Adam Entous in Tel Aviv)