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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 July, 2004, 08:51 GMT 09:51 UK
Q&A: US Supreme Court Guantanamo ruling
Prisoner at Guantanamo Bay under guard
Prisoners can now go to court

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay can take their case that they are unlawfully imprisoned to the American courts.

BBC News Online looks at the issues involved.

What did the Supreme Court say?

The overall ruling of the court was: "United States courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay."

The court then described how this should happen. It accepted the argument from lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights that the Federal District Court in Washington DC (to which the case was first brought) does have jurisdiction to hear the prisoners' petition, under the "habeas corpus" law, that they are held "in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States."

What is habeas corpus?

Habeas corpus is a Latin phrase meaning: "You have the body." It is the name given to an ancient legal device under English common law (a mixture of judge-made laws, precedents and statutes). Habeas corpus was continued in American law after independence.

If a writ of habeas corpus is issued by a court, the person holding a prisoner (the "body") must bring the prisoner to the court and justify the detention. It has been a basic instrument under which courts in common law systems have protected citizens against wrongful imprisonment.

Why did the Supreme Court rule in the prisoners' favour?

The court was divided 6-3. The majority opinion was written by Justice John Paul Stevens and hinged on the definition of "sovereignty." He argued that, even though Cuba retained "ultimate sovereignty", the United States exercised, in the words of the lease from Cuba, "complete jurisdiction and control" at Guantanamo Bay.

Therefore federal jurisdiction applied there and "aliens, no less than American citizens, are entitled to invoke the Federal courts' authority."

The court rejected an argument that a case arising out of World War II should be followed in this instance (see below), saying that the two were quite different.

Justice Stevens quoted a predecessor on habeas corpus: "Executive imprisonment has been considered oppressive and lawless since [King] John, at Runnymede, pledged that no free man should be imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, or exiled save by the judgment of his peers or by the law of the land."

The majority was formed by the liberals on the court, joined by the "swing" justices. One of the latter, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, said that the US government could not have a "blank check" even in time of war.

What did the minority on the Court say?

The minority opinion, on behalf of the three core conservatives, was written by Justice Antonin Scalia.

He based his argument on the "Eisentrager" case. This arose out of the arrest in China of a number of Germans agents accused of helping the Japanese after the surrender of Germany in World War II.

Their leader, who called himself Lothar Eisentrager though his real name was Ludwig Ehrhardt, had hired himself to the Japanese after the German surrender. He was sentenced to life in a prison in Germany but appealed for a writ of habeas corpus. The Supreme Court ruled that this did not apply because he was an alien outside US sovereign territory. He was eventually freed anyway under an amnesty.

Justice Scalia said that the "carefree" court's "spurious" ruling on Guantanamo was a "wrenching departure from precedent" and "boldly extends the scope of the habeas statute to the four corners of the earth."

The consequence, he said, was "breathtaking." It enabled "an alien captured in a foreign theater of active combat to petition the Secretary of Defense." It brought the "cumbersome machinery of our domestic courts into military affairs".

Is this the end of the prisoners' "legal black hole"?

It should be the beginning of it, though getting access to the US courts does not mean the prisoners necessarily getting their freedom. But they do now have much more of a legal status and the courts might order a full clarification.

The Defense Department announced (on 7 July) that nine more prisoners will face trial by military commission, bringing to 15 the number of prisoners who will be tried in this way.

On 7 July, the Pentagon announced that cases would be reviewed by military tribunals. Why?

The Pentagon is responding to the Supreme Court ruling and is trying to pre-empt any criticism from a US court. It is setting up three-officer review panels to determine whether a prisoner is a combatant.

This is supposed to happen under Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention which states that if there is doubt as to whether someone was a combatant, a "competent tribunal" should determine his status. The conventions have not been applied to the Guantanamo prisoners, so the panels, provision for which exist in US military law, were not convened. The decision to set them up now does not mean that Washington is suddenly going to apply the conventions but it is following them more closely.

The prisoners' lawyers are likely to argue in court that the panels are not enough and that the detainees should be properly charged or set free.

Whatever happens in the District Court is likely to be appealed in a procedure which could go on for many months.

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12 Apr 04  |  Middle East
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02 Apr 04  |  Americas

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