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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Court Rules on Tribunals

WASHINGTON -- Foreign terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, may challenge their confinement in U.S. courts because military tribunals set up to handle their cases do not protect their rights, a federal judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green said tribunals set up by the Pentagon to determine if the suspects are "enemy combatants" violate the U.S. Constitution and, in some cases, the Geneva Convention governing treatment of prisoners of war. She rejected the administration's request to throw out lawsuits filed by 54 detainees protesting their imprisonment at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

The case is one of several that will determine whether the detainees may appeal their imprisonment through the U.S. legal system or must plead their cases in special tribunals set up by the administration.

"Although this nation unquestionably must take strong action under the leadership of the commander-in-chief to protect itself against enormous and unprecedented threats," Green wrote, "that necessity cannot negate the existence of the most basic fundamental rights for which the people of this country have fought and died for well over 200 years."

In her decision, the latest legal blow against the administration's system for holding and trying terrorism suspects, Green said that the Supreme Court made clear in a ruling last June that the prisoners have constitutional rights and that lower courts must enforce them. In that ruling, the high court found that the prisoners could seek judicial review of their imprisonment.

"It would be far easier for the federal government to prosecute the war on terrorism if it could imprison all suspected 'enemy combatants' at Guantanamo Bay without having to acknowledge and respect any constitutional rights of detainees," Green wrote. "That, however, is not the relevant legal test."

The tribunals have been criticized by civil rights groups because detainees are not represented by lawyers and are not told of some of the evidence against them, including some information that the judge said might have been obtained by torture or coercion.

"Judge Green has sent a hopeful message to the world that despite the administration's continued refusal to acknowledge the unlawfulness of its behavior, our democratic institutions are working hard to ensure justice is preserved," said Barbara Olshansky, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing detainees.

The decision conflicts with a ruling two weeks ago by a different judge in the same court who heard arguments by a different group of detainees. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon threw out requests by the seven suspected terrorists for court review of their detention, finding last year's Supreme Court ruling did not provide Guantanamo detainees the legal basis to try to win their freedom in U.S. courts.

Leon concluded that foreign citizens captured and detained outside the United States have no rights under the Constitution or international law.

The conflicting rulings will probably be taken up by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, or potentially by the Supreme Court.

The government has argued that federal court review of detainees' cases was unnecessary because military tribunals are meeting the Supreme Court's demand for legal protection for the inmates.