on about whether ruling "won't cause killers to be put out on the street"
Friday June 30, 2006
A Slap in the Face that Resounds around the World
By Marc Pitzke in New York
The United States Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the military tribunals in Guatanamo are unconstitutional -- a severe blow to President Bush. But for the prisoners, some of whom have been detained for four years, the ruling changes little.
AP: The Supreme Court ruled that President Bush overstepped his authority in ordering military tribunals
The hearing only lasted an hour and a half. Chief Justice John Roberts was excused from hearing the case. He had already ruled against the claimant, an inmate of Guantanamo Bay, at the appeals court stage, before he was appointed to the Supreme Court. The absence of Roberts was a good omen for the prisoner: on Thursday the Supreme Court ruled in his favor -- and thus gave the White House a slap in the face that resounded around the world.
The ruling was made at the last sitting of the Supreme Court before the summer recess. In this case, a dramatic decision. The court not only ruled as unconstitutional the military tribunals -- dubious hearings that the US government had set up for the Guatanamo inmates. It also brought President George W. Bush, who had been wielding untrammelled authority in the war on terror, back in line. The judges fulminated that it was they and not the president who made decisions on the law, and more so than ever in times of war.
The ruling is a victory for the constitutional state, a victory for human rights campaigners and a severe defeat for Bush's aggressive anti-terror policies. But for the approximately 450 detainees at Guantanamo Bay very little will change -- at least not for the time being. The camp remains and will possibly stay open longer than planned, with its inmates just phantoms in a twilight zone of uncertainty. The question of a closure -- which even President Bush has said he now desires -- was expressly excluded from the court's considerations. The ruling only dealt with the question of which rights should be bestowed on prisoners at Guantanamo.
Victory with the help of a military officer
AP: Commander Charles Swift: "It has been a long road."
The Supreme Court insists that these rights are the full rights accorded by the US legal system and by the Geneva Convention, under which all suspects are given access to a lawyer and to the evidence against them -- and not those of the strange, semi-secret fantasy procedures operating outside of the law that the US government has created for the "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo. They call them "military tribunals," and it is one of the many ironies here that the Pentagon only began conducting them two years ago -- under the direction of the Supreme Court. Now it says: That's not enough for us, go back to square one.
A further irony is that the claimant only succeeded with the help of a Pentagon military lawyer. The Yemeni Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 36, Osama bin Laden's onetime chauffeur and bodyguard, has been held for four years at Guatanamo under the single flimsy charge of "conspiracy." As he represented Hamdan, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, a Navy officer, appeared for the hearing in full uniform. "It has been a long road," he said.
According to Swift, when he first met Hamdan, one of only ten Guantanamo inmates for whom military tribunals have been established so far, the Yemeni told him, "there is no law in Guantanamo Bay." Swift answered that he didn't believe this and told him: "Together we'll show the world that the law is everywhere." Even in Guantanamo Bay. Asked how it felt to have pleaded against his own Commander in Chief, Swift replied: "I think it's the strongest part -- it represents how strong our military is in our system of government."
"Concerns of the highest order"
Even if Chief Justice Roberts hadn't recused himself, the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld ruling would have gone in the claimant's direction. The moderate conservative Anthony Kennedy voted with his 'liberal' colleagues, which led to the final 5-3 majority ruling. "Trial by military commission raises separation-of-powers concerns of the highest order," wrote Kennedy, 69, in his opinion. The right-wing judge Clarence Thomas then read from his dissenting opinion. The court's decision, he said, would "sorely hamper the president's ability to confront and defeat a new deadly enemy."
Bush kept his opinion on the court's decision to himself at first. Speaking at a press conference with the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, he said he would seriously examine the ruling. He also said he was looking for a way to close Guantanamo Bay. He added, "The American people need to know that this ruling, as I understand it, won't cause killers to be put out on the street." But the question remains of who decides whether a prisoner is a killer or not. Bush said he now wants Congress to find a way to keep the tribunals within the military.