Human Rights First Applauds Supreme Court Decision to Hear Case on Military Commission Trials

NEW YORK – Human Rights First applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Monday to hear the appeal of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a detainee held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay for the better part of four years and slated to face trial before specially created military commissions later this month. Mr. Hamdan had challenged the legality of the commission trials under U.S. and international law, and sought, among other things, to enforce in U.S. courts the protections afforded all prisoners under the Geneva Conventions.

“The questions this case presents go to the heart of our constitutional system, and, if left unanswered, further jeopardize our relationships with our allies against terrorism, and increase the danger that our troops will face ad hoc justice when captured by our own enemies overseas,” said Deborah Pearlstein, Director of U.S. Law and Security Programs at Human Rights First. “These are the first military trials of their kind the United States has conducted since World War II. This is the kind of case that the Supreme Court exists to hear, and we’re gratified the Court has recognized the need to act.”

“Mr. Hamdan challenges the President’s authority to try him in a military commission that is being conducted far from the battlefield on which he was captured, by a commission that does not afford him the protections recognized under U.S. and international law, when the regular military courts are available to try him, and the whole world is watching. Whether this process is consistent with the laws and customs of the United States is a question that only the Supreme Court can answer,” said Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, USN (Ret.), former Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Navy from 1997 to 2000. Admiral Hutson now sits on Human Rights First’s Board of Directors.

The military commission trials, first announced in late 2001, did not get underway until August 2004, when Mr. Hamdan’s case and three others came before military commissioners at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. Human Rights First was one of a handful of international human rights organizations invited to monitor and report on the trial proceedings. Read Human Rights First’s Notes from Guantanamo.

A federal court in Washington, D.C. ordered the trials stayed indefinitely in November 2004, citing violations of Geneva Convention rules entitling all detainees to a hearing on their legal status, and violations of basic fair trial rights under the U.S. Constitution. That decision was overturned by the court of appeals ruling earlier this year.

Human Rights First filed a series of friend of the court briefs in support of Mr. Hamdan seeking Supreme Court review of his case. The most recent brief argues in part: “The decision in this case … bears not only on the rights of Mr. Hamdan and others subject to the commissions, but also on the rights of 13,000 some detainees currently held in U.S. custody in the “war on terrorism” worldwide. … Continued uncertainty about the rights of those held in this system – particularly the enforceability of those rights in U.S. courts – serves neither the interests of the detainees, nor the United States, nor the rule of law itself.”


Published on November 7, 2005


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