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Americans held in Iraq reach justices

The Supreme Court will decide whether citizens detained by the U.S. military can seek U.S. courts' protection.

December 08, 2007|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Friday that it would decide whether U.S. citizens can seek the protection of American courts if they are taken into custody and held by the U.S. military in Iraq.

At issue is the reach of the right to habeas corpus, the same question that was before the court this week in a case involving detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The justices in March will hear a pair of cases involving naturalized U.S. citizens who are held in Baghdad.

One of them, Mohammed Munaf, was sentenced to death after a 15-minute hearing before an Iraqi judge.

Born in Baghdad, Munaf emigrated to the United States in 1990 with his wife, a Romanian. He became a citizen 10 years later.

In March 2005, he went back to Iraq to work as translator for three Romanian journalists. Shortly afterward, all four were kidnapped by Iraqi militants and held for two months.

They were released to the Romanian Embassy, but the U.S. military soon took Munaf into custody and held him at Camp Cropper near the Baghdad airport. He was labeled a "security detainee."

In August 2006, after Munaf had been held for 15 months without charges, his sister filed a writ of habeas corpus on his behalf with a federal judge in Washington.

Three weeks later, the U.S. military lodged charges against him in an Iraqi court, accusing him of playing a role in the kidnapping of the Romanians.

A U.S. Coast Guard officer "met with the presiding Iraqi judge for approximately 15 minutes. Immediately thereafter, that judge convicted and sentenced Mr. Munaf to die," his attorneys told the Supreme Court. His appeal before an Iraqi court is pending.

Back in Washington, a federal judge dismissed his writ of habeas corpus because Munaf had been convicted in an Iraqi court.

The U.S. court of appeals upheld that decision in April, saying American judges "do not have the power or authority" to hear such claims. It relied on a post-World War II ruling by the Supreme Court which rejected habeas appeals from Japanese prisoners held by the U.S. military.

Meanwhile, a Jordanian-American who was taken into military custody in 2004 after a raid on his Baghdad home had more success before a different panel of the same U.S. appeals court.

Shawqi Omar, who has an American wife, was accused of harboring Al Qaeda operatives. U.S. troops said they found weapons and bomb-making materials in his home.

Unlike Munaf, he remains in military custody and has not been turned over to the Iraqi courts. His wife, Sandra, filed a writ of habeas corpus on his behalf and argued that he deserves the right to go before a judge and plead his innocence.

In May, the U.S. court of appeals agreed in a 2-1 decision and said judges can intercede on behalf of Americans who are held by the military. However, its decision did not spell what should happen next in Omar's case.

The right to habeas corpus has been part of American law since the nation's beginning. Those who are locked up by the government have, at minimum, the right to ask a judge to hear their pleas. But it remains unclear whether this right extends to foreigners and to people held outside the United States.

On Friday morning, the justices met behind closed doors to cast their votes in the Guantanamo case. There, the threshold issue is whether the right to habeas corpus extends to foreigners held by the U.S. military.

Bush administration lawyers argued strongly in the Guantanamo case, as they did in the new cases from Iraq, that the U.S. judges have no legal authority to hear appeals from military prisoners during wartime.

Friday afternoon, the court issued an order saying it had agreed to decide Munaf vs. Geren and Geren vs. Omar on whether the habeas right extends to military prisoners in Iraq. Pete Geren is the secretary of the Army.

Separately Friday, the high court agreed to consider restoring the 22-year prison sentence given to the Algerian man who was convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport during the millennial celebration in late December 1999.

Ahmed Ressam was arrested by a customs agent when he tried to cross from Canada into Washington, and was convicted on nine counts.

Last year, however, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned one count -- which carried a 10-year prison term -- and ordered a new sentencing hearing.

Federal prosecutors appealed, arguing that the 9th Circuit was wrong and that its ruling will make it harder to win long prison terms for accused terrorists who are caught with explosives.

The high court will hear the Ressam case in March.

--

david.savage@latimes.com

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