June 29, 2006

Supreme Court rejects Guantanamo military tribunals

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a sharp rebuke of President
George W. Bush's tactics in the war on terrorism, the U.S.
Supreme Court on Thursday struck down as unlawful the military
tribunal system set up to try Guantanamo prisoners.

By a 5-3 vote, the nation's highest court declared that the
tribunals, which Bush created right after the September 11
attacks, violated the Geneva Conventions and U.S. military

"We conclude that the military commission convened to try
(Salim Ahmed) Hamdan lacks power to proceed because its
structure and procedures violate" the international agreement
that covers treatment of prisoners of war, as well as the
Uniform Code of Military Justice, Justice John Paul Stevens
wrote for the court majority.

The decision was a stinging blow for the administration in
a case brought by Hamdan, who was Osama bin Laden's driver in
Afghanistan. Hamdan, one of about 450 foreign terrorism
suspects at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was
captured in November 2001.

At the White House, Bush said he had not fully reviewed the
ruling and would consult with the U.S. Congress to attain
appropriate authority for military tribunals. "We take the
findings seriously," he said.

A Pentagon spokesman declined immediate to comment but
reiterated the need for a U.S. facility to hold dangerous

The ruling, handed down on the last day of the court's
2005-06 term, followed the deaths of three Guantanamo prisoners
this month and increased calls for Bush to close the prison
camp. U.S. treatment of inmates at Guantanamo and in Iraq and
Afghanistan has drawn international criticism.

One of Hamdan's lawyers, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, praised
the high court action. "All we wanted was a fair trial," he
said outside the Supreme Court. "Yes, it is a rebuke for the
process. ... It means we can't be scared out of who we are."

Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union said,
"The Supreme Court has made clear that the executive branch
does not have a blank check in the war on terror and may not
run roughshod over the nation's legal system."

Stevens, at 86 the high court's longest serving justice and
a leading liberal, said the military commissions were not
expressly authorized by any act of the U.S. Congress. But in
reading part of the decision from the bench, he said Bush was
free to go to lawmakers to ask for the necessary authority.

Stevens also wrote the Supreme Court decision two years ago
that handed the Bush administration another major setback in
ruling the Guantanamo prisoners can sue in U.S. courts.


Stevens said in his 73-page opinion, "The rules specified
for Hamdan's trial are illegal." He said the system has to
incorporate even "the barest of those trial protections that
have been recognized by customary international law."

He said the tribunals failed to provide one of the most
fundamental protection under U.S. military rules, the right for
a defendant to be present at a proceeding.

The case produced a total of six opinions totaling 177

Stevens was joined by the other liberal justices David
Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, and
moderate-conservative Anthony Kennedy.

The conservatives -- Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence
Thomas and Samuel Alito, who was appointed by Bush --

The ninth member of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts,
who also was appointed by Bush, removed himself because he
previously was on the U.S. appeals court panel that ruled for
the Bush administration in Hamdan's case.

The dissenters agreed with the administration's argument
that the case must be dismissed because a recent law stripped
the high court of its jurisdiction over Hamdan's appeal.

Thomas also said the court needed to respect Bush's power
as commander in chief while Alito said he disagreed with the
majority that Hamdan's tribunal was illegal.

(additional reporting by Deborah Charles)