U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green said the detainees are entitled to counsel at the hearings called Combatant Status Review Tribunals.
The tribunals, ordered by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on July 7, 2004 to check the status of each detainee as "enemy combatant," not only denied a lawyer to detainees, according to Green, but they also did not present the prisoner with the evidence used against them.
"Of course, it would be far easier for the government to prosecute the war on terrorism if it could imprison all suspected 'enemy combatants' at Guantanamo Bay without having to acknowledge and respect any constitutional rights of detainees," Green said.
"Although this nation unquestionably must take strong action under the leadership of the commander in chief to protect itself against enormous and unprecedented threats, that necessity cannot negate the existence of the most basic fundamental rights for which the people of this country have fought and died for well over 200 years," she wrote.
While more than 540 suspects are being held at Guantanamo Bay, the judge's ruling applies to only 50 of the detainees whose cases she has been handling.
While the decision was a blow to the Bush administration whose lawyers said the prisoners have no constitutional rights and the lawsuits challenging their detainment should be dismissed, the ruling was a victory for the civil rights groups who filed the claims on behalf of the detainees last summer after a Supreme Court ruling found the detainees had a right to challenge their detention, according to The Washington Post.
"Now it's time for this administration to act," attorneys representing some of the detainees said in a statement. "Today's decision is a momentous victory for the rule of law, for human rights, and for our democracy."
But Monday's decision is not the end of the legal debate over the status of detainees. Less than two weeks ago, another Washington, D.C. federal judge offered a different legal opinion in his decision to dismiss a lawsuit from seven Guantanamo prisoners. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled the detainees have no constitutional rights and that last year's Supreme Court decision did not grant detainees legal status in American courts.