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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 November, 2003, 01:42 GMT
Guantanamo cases go to top court
US soldiers with Guantanamo Bay detainee
There are more than 600 detainees at the camp
The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear appeals by detainees from the Afghan war held at the Guantanamo Bay camp in Cuba.

For the first time, the court will assess whether US courts have the jurisdiction to consider appeals made on behalf of inmates held at the camp.

The appeals have been lodged by lawyers for 16 detainees, claiming that they are being held illegally.

The BBC's correspondent in Washington, Rob Watson, says the review will be very limited in its nature.

'Unlawful combatants'

He says the justices will be looking at whether the inmates' detentions are any business of the US legal system.

The Bush administration says the detainees are not US citizens, nor are they being held on US soil, so they are not protected by laws relating to prisoners of war.

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay
United States Navy base in south-eastern Cuba
Leased by Washington since 1903, but not regarded as US territory
Houses more than 600 al-Qaeda and Taleban suspects
Inmates not covered by US constitutional guarantees

In March, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected a lawsuit claiming the detainees were under de facto US control, even though the Guantanamo camp is on Cuban territory leased to the US.

If the appeal is successful, the case will be referred back to the District of Columbia court, which will consider whether the detainees are being held illegally.

Lawyers appealing on behalf of two Britons - Shafiq Rasool and Asif Iqbal - held at the camp welcomed the Supreme Court's move.

"This is without a doubt the most encouraging news they will have had - if they can ever be privy to it - since their detention began nearly two years ago," said lawyer Steven Watt.

"We're absolutely delighted," he said.

Held without charge

In their application to the Supreme Court, lawyers for two Australian and 12 Kuwaiti nationals, and the Britons, said: "The United States has created a prison on Guantanamo Bay that operates entirely outside the law".

"Within the walls of this prison, foreign nationals may be held indefinitely, without charges or evidence of wrongdoing, without access to family, friends or legal counsel, and with no opportunity to establish their innocence."

Washington has classified the detainees as "unlawful combatants" without any rights under the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of POWs.

Under such status, prisoners are not charged or allowed access to any legal process.

Last month, Christophe Girod - the senior Red Cross official in Washington - publicly attacked conditions at Guantanamo Bay, saying it was unacceptable that the detainees should be held indefinitely without legal safeguards.

The court will hear the appeal next year and will issue a ruling by the end of June, Reuters news agency reported.

The BBC's Rob Watson
"Lawyers have accused the US administration of creating a prison that operates outside the law"

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