WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US Supreme Court said it would rule on the legality of special military courts set up for "war on terror" detainees after a former driver to Osama bin Laden made the most serious challenge yet to the US administration.
The court said it would examine the legality of the military tribunals in early 2006, though the US Defense Department said it still wanted to start the first trial this month of accused "Australian Taliban" David Hicks.
"We”re assessing the decision of the Supreme Court," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. Whitman said he was unaware of any plan to postpone Hicks” trial.
The Supreme Court challenge was launched by lawyers for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni who like Hicks has been held at the controversial camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba since 2002.
Hamdan and Hicks were first detained in Afghanistan in late 2001.
Hamdan has been charged with conspiracy to stage attacks on civilians, murder and terrorism. He has denied the charges.
He is one of nine inmates to have had preliminary hearings before the special military tribunals at Guantanamo, which have been widely criticized by human rights groups, though the US government has insisted they are fair and legal.
The Pentagon on Monday announced five additional detainees would face trial by military commissions.
Conspiracy charges were lodged against Bhassan Abdullah al Sharbi and Jabrain Said bin al Qahtani of Saudi Arabia; Sufyian Barhoumi of Algeria; Binyman Ahmed Muhammad of Ethiopia; and Omar Ahmed Khadr of Canada, the Pentagon said.
"We don”t expect any changes to our current commissions procedures or schedules," a Pentagon official said of the Supreme Court”s decision, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A federal court ruled in November last year that the military commissions would violate Hamdan”s rights and that he should not be tried until a proper legal body had decided whether he was a prisoner of war.
But a US appeals court ruled on July 15 that the military trials were legal. The three-judge court panel included John Roberts, who was recently appointed the Supreme Court”s new chief justice.
The July ruling was seen as a victory for President George W. Bush”s administration and its treatment of detainees from the US war on terrorism.
The appeals court said that the 1949 Geneva Convention on prisoner of war rights did not apply to Hamdan and that the US Congress had authorized the military commission.
Due to his role in the appeals court decision, Roberts will have to recuse himself from Hamdan”s Supreme Court hearing, leaving the decision to eight of the nine judges.
Eugene Fidell, a jurist and member of the National Institute of Military Justice, said the court”s decision to have a hearing will likely cause the suspension of the military trials of other detainees, including Hicks.
Hicks, whose trial is due to start on November 18, is accused of fighting alongside the Taliban against US-led forces who invaded after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The Muslim convert from Adelaide, Australia is facing charges of attempted murder and aiding the enemy after allegedly training at Al-Qaeda-linked military camps.
Several hundred law professors signed a letter sent to Congress in 2001 arguing that creating the military commissions would be "gravely unwise," said Yale University professor Judith Resnik, who signed the letter. The professors renewed their call recently.
The court should rule that "the commission is a wrong process, that it hasn”t been licensed by the Congress and that the president doesn”t have the authority to try this group of people in this way," Resnik said.
Around 500 detainees are held at the US military detention facility, which was set up in 2002 soon after the start of the US-led offensive against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001.
US interrogation tactics, including those used at Guantanamo, have come under fire. But Bush on Monday said "we do not torture."
The Center for Constitutional Rights, meanwhile, claimed that a "severe delay in mail delivery and government interference" delayed the arrival of letters from some Guantanamo detainees asking for representation in US courts.
Federal defenders have also joined 450 private attorneys working with the center to help with more than 50 Guantanamo cases.