Guantanamo Prison's Future Unclear After Ruling
JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
The Supreme Court yesterday delivered a blow to the Bush administration's tactics in the war on terror. The high court ruled that the military tribunal system set up to try detainees held at the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is illegal. The case centered on Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni man the government says was a driver and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.
NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:
In August, 2004, Salim Ahmed Hamdan entered a small and crowded courtroom at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The then 34-year-old Hamdan looked both nervous and excited. He was the first detainee to appear in front of what the government calls a military commission since the end of World War II. This type of military tribunal was set up to try the Guantanamo detainees with war crimes.
Joseph McMillan, one of Hamdan's civilian lawyers, says it took a long time for his client to get to court.
Mr. JOSEPH MCMILLAN (Attorney for Salim Ahmed Hamdan): Mr. Hamdan sat in Guantanamo for over a year before he was even charged. And then he sat in solitary confinement for some, you know, ten months following that charge. So it's been a very protracted process. It has not provided the sort of speedy trial that the military commissions were sort of advertised as providing.
NORTHAM: Four and a half years after Hamdan arrived at Guantanamo, and three and a half years after he was charged, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the military trials at the prison camp violated both U.S. and international law.
The good news for Hamdan is that he won his case. The bad news for Hamdan is he will now have to wait even longer for a trial, while the Bush administration decides how to proceed. One option is that the government can try the Guantanamo prisoners in civilian courts, but administration officials have always made it clear that's unlikely to happen.
Another option would be to deem the detainees prisoners of war rather than enemy combatants, which they're now called. If they were made POWs, the detainees would be given all the privileges and protections of any American service personnel facing a court martial.
Gary Solis, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, says it would be good if Congress got involved.
Professor GARY SOLIS (Georgetown University): Congress can amend the rules for courts martial as they apply to enemy combatants. So we can have a court martial process which is familiar to military judge advocates around the world, import judge advocates to Guantanamo, trial teams, and simply sit down and start trying these individuals with modified rules.
NORTHAM: President Bush and other administration officials indicated they would work with Congress to respond to the high court ruling and get the commissions restarted. That could be both a long and cumbersome process. Ten prisoners, including Hamdan, have been charged with crimes so far.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that the administration should think in new ways about how to address handling the detainees.
Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Brookings Institution): And that might mean giving somebody else inside the executive branch independent authority to release these people when he or she thinks they are not serious threats to the country's security. In other words, speed up the whole process so there's not only some kind of a court proceeding, but also an independent administrative review of these people by individuals who do not work for Mr. Rumsfeld or Mr. Bush directly.
NORTHAM: One of the constant complaints about Guantanamo is the lack of due process, the open-ended detentions where prisoners have no idea of their fate. Speeding up the trial process could help quell the international outrage over the camp, that and reducing the number of detainees who do not represent a threat.
The President and other officials say they would like to close Guantanamo, but until that happens, construction continues there on a second hard-walled prison. A new headquarters and an intelligence center have also been built. There is no sense the controversial camp is closing down.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon allowed Hamdan's lawyers to tell him the news, that his case has forced the government to retool its strategy for trying Guantanamo prisoners and to wait a bit longer for his day in court.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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