Lawyers for 16 men detained by the United States in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, asked a federal appeals court yesterday to give the prisoners access to the U.S. judicial system, arguing that their indefinite, incommunicado captivity defies the letter and spirit of U.S. and international law.
The attorneys asked a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to overturn a lower court's ruling in July that the men captured during the war in Afghanistan have no legal standing because they are foreign nationals not held on U.S. soil.
Joe Margulies and Thomas B. Wilner, attorneys representing the prisoners' families, argued that the writ of habeas corpus -- which compels judicial review of inmates' detentions -- the federal Alien Tort Claims Act and the international protocols of the Geneva Convention give the detainees at the U.S. Navy prison camp rights to U.S. courts and legal protection.
"Intelligence gathering may go forward, detentions on Guantanamo Bay may go forward, but detentions may not go forward without process of law," Margulies, a Minneapolis-based attorney arguing the case for the Center for Constitutional Rights, told the judges.
The lawyers represent 12 Kuwaitis, two Britons and two Australians captured in Afghanistan during the fighting that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon. After the 90-minute hearing, both attorneys said the court's ruling would apply to the more than 600 Guantanamo detainees.
In a move that has drawn sharp criticism from foreign governments and human rights organizations, the prisoners have been held and interrogated without access to lawyers or family members. The Bush administration has said those detentions may continue indefinitely.
Government attorneys yesterday repeated their argument that because the Guantanamo Bay facility is on territory leased from Cuba, U.S. courts lack jurisdiction over it. They noted that in Johnson v. Eisentrager, a World War II espionage case involving German nationals captured in China, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1950 that foreign citizens detained abroad lack the "capacity and standing to invoke the process of the federal courts."
Deputy Solicitor General Paul D. Clement told the judges yesterday that it was "fundamental" that suspected terrorists would not be given the rights accorded to other criminal defendants.
"If you hold someone as an enemy combatant, obviously you hold them without access to family members and without access to counsel," he said.
The government's 56-page brief urged the court to uphold the July ruling by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who rejected the plaintiffs' arguments.
"The court concludes that the military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is outside the sovereign territory of the United States," she ruled. "Given that . . . writs of habeas corpus are not available to aliens held outside the sovereign territory of the United States, this court does not have jurisdiction."
The judges hearing the appeal -- Merrick B. Garland, A. Raymond Randolph and Stephen F. Williams -- peppered each side with questions but gave no indication of when they would issue a ruling.