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Prisoners' fates rest with District Court

SUPREME COURT RULES ON GUANTANAMO DETAINEES / Q&A

June 13, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

What does the Supreme Court decision recognizing Guantanamo detainees' habeas corpus rights mean for the detainees?

About 270 men are at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in southern Cuba -- 19 already charged with war crimes and 250 or so being held without charges, many for more than six years. Habeas corpus is a constitutionally guaranteed right to challenge detention, but the Pentagon has denied it to the terrorism suspects at Guantanamo. These prisoners now get a day in court before a federal judge who will determine whether the government has enough evidence of crimes to warrant keeping them in custody. If the judges find the government lacks the legal grounds to hold the men, the prisoners must be released.

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How does the decision affect those already charged with war crimes, including confessed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed?

The 19 detainees identified for trial by military commissions will not be immediately affected by the court ruling. The government has shown grounds for holding those men in the charges against them. Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said that the military trials continue to go forward and that any legal issues emanating from the high court's ruling will be litigated before the military commissions themselves.

Legal analysts point out that the U.S. District Court hearings for the 250 or so not yet charged could define more clearly what constitutes an "enemy combatant," or disqualify evidence derived through torture or coercion. That would give defense lawyers the opportunity to challenge the tribunal's legality or jurisdiction.

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What did lawyers for the detainees say after the court's decision?

Lawyers representing the Guantanamo prisoners in the habeas corpus petitions predicted that, in many of the cases, the government would be unable to prove to the civilian judges that it had sufficient or reliable evidence of crimes. Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many of the detainees in their habeas challenges, said he expected "a high number" of the 250 would be released after the District Court reviews.

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What does the Supreme Court ruling signal for the future of the detention and interrogation facilities at Guantanamo?

There could be a sharp reduction in the number of prisoners held there. The Pentagon justifies indefinite detention for the men it has not charged on the grounds that they could pose a danger if released. If, after a habeas corpus hearing, a judge decides those suspicions are not enough to justify continued imprisonment, the population could drop to the 60 to 80 men Pentagon officials have said they plan to prosecute. Some legal analysts say they doubt the government has sufficient evidence to bring more than about two dozen men to trial.

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How soon will the court hearings occur, and where are they likely to be held?

The ruling ordered rapid review of the petitions and suggested consolidation of the cases to speed resolution, which lawyers interpreted to mean the hearings could begin by autumn. Most of the evidentiary hearings will be reviewed in District Court in Washington, where they were filed years ago and where previous federal court rulings have assigned their review.

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How have the Guantanamo prisoners reacted to the news of the ruling?

Lawyers who represent the prisoners note that they are unable to communicate directly with their clients. It may take two weeks for their letters explaining the ruling's implications to reach the men in their cells. One habeas lawyer, Wells Dixon, was at Guantanamo to visit a client and was likely to convey the news to him, but it was unclear whether or how fast that information would be circulated.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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