Time for real change as Supreme Court rules on Guantánamo detentions

On the 12 June 2008 the US Supreme Court  recognized, in the case of Boumediene v.Bush, the right of those detained at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba to challenge their detention in US civilian courts. Amnesty International described the ruling as an essential step towards restoring the rule of law to the USA’s counter terrorism measures.

The judgment  removes a key obstacle to vindicating basic rights ending the lawless environment of isolation, enforced silence, invisibility, and unrestrained executive power in Guantánamo Bay.

The Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional attempts by the administration and Congress (through the 2006 Military Commissions Act) to strip the detainees of their right to habeas corpus. The Court also dismissed as deficient the substitute scheme established by the administration and Congress to replace habeas corpus proceedings. That scheme consists of “Combatant Status Review Tribunals” (CSRTs), panels of three military officers empowered to review the detainee’s “enemy combatant” status, with extremely limited judicial review of final CSRT decisions under the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act (DTA). The first CSRTs were not held until more than two years after the detentions began. No judicial review of CSRT decisions had been undertaken at the time of the Supreme Court’s decision.

“This is the third time since 2004 that the US’s highest court has rejected arguments advanced by the Bush administration that it can indefinitely detain people without charge or trial, with no meaningful access to justice,” said Amnesty International. The organisation had filed an amicus brief in the case.

“The time has come for the US government to finally bring its detention policies and practices in the ‘war on terror’ in line with international standards. It must stop all interference with the access of detainees to civilian courts. It should close Guantánamo promptly, abandon the fundamentally unfair military commission proceedings and either release or charge and try detainees held there in US federal courts”, Amnesty International said.

President George W. Bush’s immediate response to the judgment was to side with the four Justices who dissented from the majority opinion. The President stated that the dissenters had been concerned about national security, and that the administration would “study this opinion, and we’ll do so with this in mind, to determine whether or not additional legislation might be appropriate, so that we can safely say, or truly say to the American people: We’re doing everything we can to protect you.”

The organization expressed concern that the US Government has in the past sought to circumvent rulings of the Supreme Court dealing with their detention policies and practices – notoriously introducing the Military Commissions Act after the court ruled against it in Hamdan v Rumsfeld –  and its hopes that the President’s response is not a signal the administration will not adequately address the substance of the Court’s ruling.

“Justice is long overdue for the some 280 detainees, many of whom have been detained for more than six years without access to any court,” said Amnesty International.