A U.S. court has ruled that the government can try suspected terrorists before military tribunals.  Friday's ruling sets the stage for a possible final confrontation on the controversial issue before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals handed the Bush administration a major legal victory Friday when it ruled that military trials for suspected terrorists can proceed.

The appeals court said suspected terrorists of al-Qaida are not entitled to the rights and protections of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which govern the treatment of prisoners of war.  The ruling came in the case of Salim Ahmad Hamdan, a Yemeni who authorities say was once the driver for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, and who is now being held at the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 

Mr. Hamdan's attorneys had claimed the rules and procedures of the military tribunals, set up by President Bush after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, violate basic legal rights.  In November, a lower court ruled in Mr. Hamdan's favor, bringing the tribunal process to a screeching halt.

There are approximately 520 inmates at the Guantanamo detention facility, some of whom, like Mr. Hamdan, have been held without trial since 2001. 

The appeals court judges rejected contentions by Mr. Hamdan's lawyers that President Bush exceeded his authority when he set up the tribunals.  The court said the resolution passed by Congress after the 2001 attacks was sufficient legal authorization for the president to set up military tribunals, and that a formal declaration of war was not necessary.

Neal Kaytel, the lead attorney for Mr. Hamdan and a law professor at Georgetown University, told VOA the appeals court ruling translates into a worrisome expansion of presidential power.

"This is a very dangerous holding for those people who believe in principles of limited government, because what is says is that the president can disregard the Geneva Conventions and the most solemn laws of the United States that restrict how the president carries out military justice.  It means, in practice, that the Geneva Conventions are no barrier to how the president and the troops carry out their functioning," said Mr. Kaytel.

There was no immediate comment from the Department of Defense.

Mr. Hamdan's attorneys may now ask that the case be brought before the full 12-judge Court of Appeals, or they could move directly to ask that it be heard by the Supreme Court.  Mr. Kaytel said the attorneys had not yet made any decision on a future course of action, except that they may seek what he called appropriate review.