Legal Deadline Arrives for Guantanamo Prisoners

Briefs are due Friday for detainees at Guantanamo Bay who want to challenge their treatment in United States federal court. The government contends a law passed last year closes the courts to Guantanamo detainees, except to appeal the rulings of military commissions.

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Court briefs are due today in a case that could determine the fate of more than 160 detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. A judge has to decide if a new law requires her to dismiss all the detainee lawsuits that are working their way through the legal system. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Two senators, one Republican, one Democrat, wrote an amendment that would put all of the complaints from Guantanamo Bay detainees in a special military court. Now the men disagree about what their law does to the detainees whose complaints are already in the works.

Mr. TODD GAZIANO (Director, Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, Heritage Foundation): If anything, it is a lesson that members of Congress should think clearly about the statutes they pass.

SHAPIRO: Todd Gaziano directs the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Mr. GAZIANO: This wouldn't be the first time that a member of Congress thought that their legislation did something that it didn't do.

SHAPIRO: Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan are the members in question. The Justice Department takes Senator Graham's side arguing that the law moves all future and pending Guantanamo court cases out of the civilian legal system.

Human rights organizations take Senator Levin's side arguing that the law was never meant to apply to cases that are already in progress. Morton Sklar runs The World Organization on Human Rights USA, which is one of the groups representing Guantanamo detainees.

Mr. MORTON SKLAR (Executive Director, The World Organization for Human Rights USA): This is something that the U.S. government has been pushing for for a long time. This isn't a new idea. There's a long line of efforts and arguments that the government has made to get them outside of the purview of the courts-- prohibit the courts from dealing with them.

SHAPIRO: The government says it isn't trying to get detainees out of the courts; it's just trying to put them all in the same limited military court system. The Heritage Foundation's Gaziano says the government is arguing for consistency.

Mr. GAZIANO: Certainly, it's not fair to treat detainees who filed their petitions now or two months ago, differently, but more importantly, it's also fair that there be some clear standard and I think that's what Congress had in mind--some clear process applied to all of these claims.

SHAPIRO: The judge in this case has lumped all of the petitions together. She'll decide, for example, what happens to the man who claims he was tortured through force-feeding and the men who say they're being kept at Guantanamo Bay even though they were ordered released months ago. George Mason law professor, Peter Berkowitz says this tug of war between the branches of government is as old as the country.

Mr. PETER BERKOWITZ (Associate Professor of Law, George Mason University): That's how our system works. You pass a law that deals with an extremely important and delicate matter--civil liberties and national security in wartime--and naturally there's going to be a battle over its interpretation.

SHAPIRO: He says in nearly every war the United States has fought, the executive branch has overreached, the judicial branch has reined it in and at some point, Congress has established the rules.

Mr. BERKOWITZ: When each part's doing its role, and perhaps a bit aggressively, that's okay because what the system was designed, the system expects that kind of overreaching from each side.

SHAPIRO: But Berkowitz says even with all of the historical precedence for this conflict, it's still impossible to predict what the final outcome in this case will be. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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