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US Supreme Court Says Terror Suspects May Challenge Detention - 2004-06-28

The U.S. Supreme Court has delivered a mixed decision on the status of people detained in the war on terrorism. The high court ruled Monday that the U.S. government has the authority to apprehend and indefinitely detain people, but added that they may legally challenge their detention.

In a pair of decisions in related cases, the Supreme Court said foreign-born and American detainees have the right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts.

The court did not rule on the legality of the detentions themselves, thus leaving the U.S. government with the wide latitude to hold terror suspects without trial.

The decisions came in the cases brought on behalf of the 600 or so men arrested in Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas and held at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and two U.S. citizens arrested and held in the United States.

U.S. troops have detained hundreds of people, mostly in Afghanistan, as suspected terrorists. The government has labeled them "enemy combatants" and claimed they can be detained indefinitely. In cases brought to the Supreme Court, government lawyers argued that the detainees are out of U.S. legal jurisdiction because they are held on a U.S. base in Cuba.

The Supreme Court rejected that position, saying the detainees have the right to be heard in U.S. courts.

Harold Koh, dean of the Yale University Law School, says the Iraqi prison scandal, in which U.S. soldiers are accused of abusing detainees, affected the court's decision. "I think the government was saying up until then 'you can trust us, we can protect the rights of individuals, even if Congress and the courts don't participate at all.' And I think what the court's saying today is, 'forget that,'" he said.

Legal scholars were divided about the effect of the court's rulings on the Administration's bid to indefinitely detain terrorism suspects. David Rivkin, a former legal counsel in administrations of Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush, notes that the government's power to detain suspects as "enemy combatants" was upheld.

"The Supreme Court held that the government is entitled to hold even American citizens as enemy combatants and does not have to treat them as criminal suspects. And that is a huge victory for the government," said Mr. Rivkin.

But Steven Shapiro, legal counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has opposed the detentions as unconstitutional, says the Administration has suffered a major legal defeat.

"This is an administration that has deliberately designed its war on terrorism in an effort to place it beyond judicial review and outside the rule of law. The court today rejected that position clearly and overwhelmingly," he said.

Legal analysts say the court decision is vague on whether it applies only to the Guantanamo detainees, or whether those held at U.S. facilities in Afghanistan or elsewhere can now challenge their detentions in U.S. courts.