A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that the 650 suspected terrorists and Taliban fighters held at a U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have no legal rights in the United States and may not ask courts to review their detentions.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, an important legal victory for the administration in its war on terrorism, means that the detainees can be held indefinitely without access to lawyers or judges.

The attorneys for 16 detainees -- 12 Kuwaitis, two Britons and two Australians -- sought to force the government to explain in court why the men are being held. That motion, known as a writ of habeas corpus, establishes a court's authority over a person in custody.

But the court rejected those appeals, citing a World War II Supreme Court case about German prisoners as precedent and ruling that because Cuba holds ultimate sovereignty over the leased military base, U.S. courts have no jurisdiction there.

"No court in this country has jurisdiction to grant habeas relief to the Guantanamo detainees, even if they have not been adjudicated enemies of the United States," wrote Circuit Court Judge A. Raymond Randolph in the 18-page opinion. "If the Constitution does not entitle the detainees to due process, and it does not, they cannot invoke the jurisdiction of our courts to test the constitutionality or the legality of restraints on their liberty."

Circuit Court Judge Merrick B. Garland and Senior Circuit Court Judge Stephen F. Williams concurred.

The decision upheld a federal court ruling issued in August. The detainees can appeal to the full D.C. circuit or the Supreme Court.

U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft hailed yesterday's ruling as an "important victory in the war on terrorism.

"In times of war, the president must be able to protect our nation from enemies who seek to harm innocent Americans," Ashcroft said in a statement. "As the D.C. Circuit recognized, the Supreme Court has held that this nation's enemies may not enlist America's courts to 'divert' . . . efforts and attention from the military offensive abroad to the legal defensive at home."

The attorneys for the detainees and some human rights groups said the ruling sacrifices basic American legal protections as part of an over-zealous effort to combat terrorism.

"This is a sad day for American principles of justice and fairness, and for the judiciary that is supposed to uphold those principles," Thomas Wilner and Kristine Huskey, the D.C. attorneys for the 12 Kuwaitis, said in a statement. "The court has . . . held for the first time in any context that the United States may jail foreigners abroad with no rights whatsoever, including the right to go before an impartial forum to establish their innocence."

The 16 detainees were caught by U.S. or allied forces during the battle against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Some were brought to Guantanamo Bay more than a year ago. Since then, they have been held without access to legal counsel and allowed only heavily censored letters to family members.

In a brief filed with the appellate court in December, the government argued that the detainees are "being held under the law of war" and said it would be dangerous for the courts to begin "second guessing" military decisions while hostilities in the war on terrorism are continuing.

A handful of the detainees have been released, but critics of the government's position have contended that because the war on terror may last indefinitely, it is unclear whether the prisoners will ever be let go.

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly rejected the detainees' case in August. She ruled that although the United States has held an indefinite lease over Guantanamo Bay since 1903 and exercises military control of the base, the territory ultimately belongs to Cuba. That status precludes detainees from claiming the rights and protections of the U.S. justice system, she ruled.

Kollar-Kotelly based her opinion on a World War II case, Johnson v. Eisentrager, that applied to German nationals arrested in China during the final stages of the war. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that they did not have access to U.S. courts.

The three-judge appellate panel yesterday upheld Kollar-Kotelly's opinion. The detainees "cannot seek release based on violations of the Constitution or other treaties or federal law; the courts are not open to them," Randolph wrote. He added a nine-page concurring opinion, explaining more legally subtle reasons why the detainees had no access to the courts.

Joseph Margulies, the attorney for the two Australians and two Britons, said he would ask the Supreme Court to take up the case.

"The circuit court's opinion is far broader than anything the Supreme Court has ever adopted," he said. "We don't think they will accept their thinking in this case, either."

Staff writer John Mintz contributed to this report.