The court ruling, a significant victory for the Bush Administration, came in a 2 to 1 decision of the three-judge appeals panel, and affects hundreds of cases waiting to be heard. It also sets the stage for an appeal to the Supreme Court by Gitmo prisoners, as well as likely attempts in Congress to pass new legislation expressly approving habeas corpus rights for those detained at the Cuban base.
Indeed, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has already indicated he will step up his bid on behalf of a bill that would restore detainees' legal rights. Such a bill, introduced by Leahy and then-Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., narrowly failed to pass last year.
American citizens and foreigners incarcerated inside the U.S. have the right under most circumstances to challenge their detention before a judge. But the Justice Department has argued that foreign "enemy combatants" held outside the U.S. do not enjoy this constitutional protection, even though the Guantanamo base is under full U.S. control an argument the court accepted.
"Federal courts have no jurisdiction in these cases," Judge A. Raymond Randolph wrote for the court majority in a 25-page opinion. He added that arguments to the contrary were "creative but not cogent."
Judge Judith Rogers, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, dissented from the majority, declaring in a minority opinion that the suspension of habeas corpus for Guantanamo prisoners in a law President Bush signed last year was unconstitutional, and also violated long-established U.S. legal principles.
The latest ruling is part of a protracted court battle pitting President Bush against human rights advocates who have accused his administration of permitting inhumane treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Guantanamo and secret prisons around the world. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared the military tribunal system created by President Bush unconstitutional, the President asked Congress to give him new authority under a new law, known as the Military Commissions Act, which was signed in October.
"We must now look to Congress and the Supreme Court to restore this fundamental American right, the right of habeas corpus, which allows prisoners to challenge their detention," said Marc Falkoff, a legal adviser to prisoners and a professor at Northern Illinois University College of Law.
"Habeas corpus is a right that was enshrined in the Magna Carta to prevent kings from indefinitely and arbitrarily detaining anyone they chose," added Vincent Warren, executive-director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit legal foundation that is also party to the case.
At the moment, there are some 395 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, including some who arrived there five years ago, shortly after 9/11.