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Guantanamo, the Supreme Court and Prisoner Rights

Among the most contentious issues surrounding treatment of some prisoner in U.S. military custody is the legal status of those held at Guantanmo Bay, Cuba. The debate has resulted in several court cases, and a Supreme Court ruling heralded by human rights organizations and criticized by the administration.

Rasul et al. V. Bush, President of the United States, et al.

This case arose out of the specific circumstances of detainees held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba which was established in 1898, when the U.S. took control of Cuba from Spain at the end of the Spanish-American War. The U.S. government obtained a perpetual lease that began on February 23, 1903 from the Cuban state. The U.S. has maintained the base even when it severed relations with the country after the Cuban Revolution. There are over 500 detainees being held at the base as of April, 2005.

The petitioners in this case maintained that they were entitled to the protections of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the protections of habeas corpus which would prevent their being held at the base for an indeterminate amount of time and without access to legal council. U.S. jurisprudence ensures that if a writ of habeas corpus is issued by a court, the person holding a prisoner must bring the prisoner to the court and justify the detention. With a long judicial history, habeas corpus has been a basic instrument under which courts in common law systems have protected citizens against wrongful imprisonment.

The government argued that the special situation of the Guantanamo base — it's extraterritoriality — meant that the U.S. legal protections did not apply to detainees. The Supreme Court disagreed. In a six to three decision, based on the question of whether or not the U.S. had sufficient jurisdiction over the base in Cuba, the Court ruled that prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay can take their case that they are unlawfully imprisoned to the American courts. The overall ruling of the Court was: "United States courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay." Significantly, the Court also stated that "aliens, no less than American citizens, are entitled to invoke the Federal courts' authority."

Below are some voices from the Court and links for more information. Head to the message boards to discuss your thoughts on the topic.

For the MajorityFor the Dissent
"Executive imprisonment has been considered oppressive and lawless since [King] John, at Runnymede, pledged that no free man should be imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, or exiled save by the judgment of his peers or by the law of the land."

- Justice Stevens writing for the majority

"Departure from our rule of stare decision in statutory cases is always extraordinary; it ought to be unthinkable when the departure has a potentially harmful effect upon the Nationís conduct of a war. The Commander in Chief and his subordinates had every reason to expect that the internment of combatants at Guantanamo Bay would not have the consequence of bringing the cumbersome machinery of our domestic courts into military affairs."

- Justice Scalia writing for the dissent

See also: PBS FRONTLINE "Son of Al Qaeda, Inside Guantanamo Bay;" PBS RELIGION AND ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, "The Ethics of Torture"; U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay

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