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Guantanamo Bay Prisoners Given Rights to Trial, NCC Applauds Decision

( [email protected] ) Jun 29, 2004 12:04 PM EDT

On June 28, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners detained in the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay may not be held in “legal limbo” and must be given a right to a fair trial, sparking criticism from President Bush’s supporters, but praise from many other groups, including the largest ecumenical body in the U.S., the National Council of Churches.

Several months prior, the NCC, in conjunction with its counterparts in Europe, called for the just rights of the nearly 600 foreign nationals held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. These foreign nationals, many of whom came recently from Iraq because of their alleged links to Al Queda, are kept in the camps for an unspecified period of time, and are not given a chance to plead their case.

However, Monday’s ruling, Al Odah v. United States and Rasul v. Bush, challenged the precedence used by the Bush Administration prohibiting prisoners on foreign soil from using American courts for protection. The NCC was among the signatories to an amicus “friend of the court” brief supporting the prisoners’ rights in January.

The following is the Press Release posted by the National Council of Churches on June 28:

The National Council of Churches USA welcomed today’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the nearly 600 foreign nationals detained at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay have the right to challenge their detention in American courts.

The NCC said the Court’s ruling in the consolidated Al Odah v. United States and Rasul v. Bush supports the Council’s moral contention that there is no land without law.

“At issue here,” said the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, NCC General Secretary, “is not the guilt or innocence of these terrorism suspects, but rather their right under the U.S. Constitution and international law to challenge the legality of their detention.

“If the United States is to model democracy, it must accord due process to all whom it detains,” he said. “It was disingenuous for the U.S. Administration to claim that because Guantanamo is not formally U.S. ‘sovereign’ territory, the Guanatanamo detainees could not petition U.S. courts for review of their detention. In fact, the U.S. courts are the only courts to which these detainees can assert their innocence, and the Supreme Court’s ruling today recognizes that.”

He called on the United States to move quickly to charge or release the Guantanamo prisoners, and to give those charged a fair chance to defend themselves.

The National Council of Churches was among signatories to a “friend of the court” brief supporting the due process rights of the Guantanamo detainees, filed in January by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

In March, the NCC co-sponsored the visit to Washington, D.C., by a delegation of the international Guantanamo Human Rights Commission, a London-based organization that includes relatives of Guantanamo detainees and others calling for recognition of the detainees’ right to due process.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in today’s 6-3 decision on the case Al Odah v. United States and Rasul v. Bush, ruled that American courts do have the jurisdiction to consider the claims of prisoners who say they are being held illegally in violation of their rights. Foreign nationals from more than 40 countries have been held at Guantanamo since early 2002, most of them without charge.

The NCC also had signed a “friend of the court” brief in the case of terror suspect Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen was captured overseas, declared an “enemy combatant” and who has been held without charge for nearly two years in a U.S. military jail in South Carolina without any of the customary protections of the U.S. legal system.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today on the Padilla case did not address the issue of whether President Bush has the power to hold him. The Court said only that the case should have been brought in South Carolina, where Padilla is detained, and not in a federal court in New York.

“We regret that the Court chose not to rule on the substance of Mr. Padilla’s case, but rather effectively to delay a decision in the case by ruling on a technicality,” said Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos said, NCC Associate General Secretary for International Affairs and Peace.

But he welcomed the Court’s ruling that another American citizen, Yaser Hamdi, could not be held indefinitely without a chance to contest his detention. Although the NCC did not file a “friend of the court” in that case, he said, the Court’s ruling “reflects the point we were trying to make in the Padilla case.”