Foreign suspects held in Guantanamo Bay have the right to challenge their detention in US civilian courts, the US Supreme Court has ruled. In a major legal setback for the Bush administration, the court overturned by five to four a ruling upholding a 2006 law which removed such rights. It is not clear if the ruling will lead to prompt hearings for the detainees. Some 270 men are held at the US naval base, on suspicion of terrorism or links to al-Qaeda and the Taleban. The White House has said it is studying the latest decision. Thursday’s ruling potentially resurrects several cases which had been put on hold in recent months.


Federal judges, law clerks and court administrators are scrambling to read the 70-page opinion and work out how to proceed. And a military lawyer for Osama Bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, is requesting that charges against his client at Guantanamo be dismissed. The military judge in the case had postponed Mr Hamdan’s trial, which had been scheduled to start earlier this month, pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case.

‘Extraordinary times’

Brushing aside arguments that the suspects were enemy combatants being held at a time of war, the court said the detainees had “the constitutional privilege of habeas corpus”. This is the right of detainees under the US constitution to be heard by an independent judge.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “The laws and constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.” This is the Bush administration’s third setback at the highest US court since 2004 over its treatment of prisoners who are being held indefinitely and without charge at the base in Cuba. The court has ruled twice previously that Guantanamo inmates could go into civilian courts to ask that the government justify their continued detention. But each time, the Bush administration and Congress, then controlled by Republicans, changed the law to keep the detainees out of civilian courts. The two previous Supreme Court rulings have not done much to clarify the inmates’ situation, says the BBC’s Jamie Coomarasamy in Washington.
Last week, five detainees, including key suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, appeared before a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed dismissed the trial as an “inquisition”.