For the first time since the September 11 2001 attacks, a terror suspect held nearly incommunicado at a US prison in Cuba got his chance to convince his jailers that he should go free.
The hearing at the US Navy prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, yesterday, is the government’s most visible response since a Supreme Court ruling last month granted new legal rights to about 600 foreign-born men held at the US base on Cuba’s south-eastern tip.
In another move yesterday, the US Justice Department filed its first detailed response to lawsuits from Guantanamo detainees. The detainees have no constitutional rights, including the right to see a lawyer, the government said in court filings.
The Supreme Court’s ruling gave the Guantanamo prisoners a means to challenge their captivity in federal court, and the government would allow outside lawyers to help them, but that did not mean that wider constitutional protections applied, government lawyers wrote.
“As aliens detained by the military outside the sovereign territory of the United States and lacking a sufficient connection to this country, petitioners have no cognisable constitutional rights,” the lawyers said in court papers.
Civilian defence lawyers could visit their clients at Guantanamo under careful restrictions, the Bush administration said. Lawyers must have security clearances and some lawyer-client meetings may be monitored by government agents, the filing in US District Court said.
“These necessary precautions do not compromise attorney-detainee communications,” the government lawyers wrote.
The day’s events moved into high relief what had been a slow and complex back-and-forth among the military, defence lawyers and government lawyers over how to comply with the high court’s ruling.
At the Pentagon, navy secretary Gordon England said the hearing into whether the Navy was properly holding an unidentified prisoner as an enemy combatant was the first of some 600 to be held over the coming one to four months.
The administrative hearing was closed to the press and the public. Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr Beci Brenton said there was no immediate decision on the prisoner’s fate.
But human rights lawyers said the military process was a sham, part of government foot-dragging since the Supreme Court largely rejected the Bush administration’s legal arguments in three cases about the detention of potential terrorists.
“The government is making every effort they can to comply as minimally as possible with the Supreme Court’s opinion and the constitution and to delay as long as possible the moving forward of these cases,” said Jeffrey Fogel, legal director of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, which represents several detainees.
In the Guantanamo case, the high court allowed the prisoners to petition an American judge for their freedom, even though they were being held on Cuban soil. The court was not specific about how or where the prisoners could sue, but lawyers representing about 50 prisoners have taken their cases to federal court in Washington.
Those cases are separate from the military’s hearings. The Pentagon set up the hearings after the high court’s ruling and has characterised them as a first step towards preparing the government’s legal defence for eventual lawsuits in civilian courts.