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 CNS Story:

SCOTUS-GUANTANAMO Jun-16-2008 (910 words) With photos posted May 27. xxxn

Religious, rights groups applaud Supreme Court in habeas corpus case

By Dennis Sadowski
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Leaders in the human rights and anti-torture movements said the June 12 U.S. Supreme Court decision defending the right of habeas corpus for detainees at the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba is a hopeful sign that upholds American values for anyone accused of even the most heinous offenses.

At the same time, they expressed concern the court's narrow 5-4 decision may be limited in scope, leaving detainees in detention centers around the world with no access to the courts while continuing to expose all detainees to interrogation techniques that some consider torture.

The United States opened the prison Jan. 11, 2002, at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo saying it was beyond the reach of American courts. The June 12 ruling marked the third time the court has decided in favor of detainee rights since 2004.

Habeas corpus is the right of a person to appear in a court of law to answer the charge made against him. It places the burden of proof on those detaining the person to justify the detention.

Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor of law at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco's School of Law, said the first two decisions governed statutory provisions and that in both cases Congress passed White House-proposed bills that restricted habeas corpus rights. The most recent decision, however, addressed a basic constitutional issue and has far broader implications, he explained.

For Honigsberg, who visited the Guantanamo Bay prison in May 2007 while conducting research for a book he is writing on the erosion of basic rights in law since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the court's decision sets the stage for prisoners to present their cases in a U.S. court rather than waiting indefinitely for the federal government to bring individual cases to trial.

"The real issue is about whether non-Americans, foreign nationals living outside the U.S. have a constitutional right to file habeas corpus petitions," Honigsberg told Catholic News Service. "That was an issue never really addressed in wartime. It's amazingly significant. To me it's astounding. This is the first time it's happened in wartime and for non-Americans.

"So whether they're innocent or not is not what we're looking at. We're looking at the core of this nation: You have the right to appear before a neutral decision-maker," he said.

"The Supreme Court is saying even in these times (of war) you have to give these people the chance to have a hearing to say whether they are wrongfully held or rightfully held," he added.

Marie Dennis, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, welcomed the court's ruling, but also expressed caution about what it means to the detainees.

"I think it's an extremely important decision," she said. "I think the majority opinion said it well in saying that the basic rights of human beings -- I think they called it liberty and security -- are not mutually exclusive."

Dennis also is a member of the Catholic subgroup of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture that wrote a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' study guide on the morality of torture that has not yet been released. She said the preservation of basic rights will do more to protect American security than attempts to hold people indefinitely as current U.S. policy provides.

"What kind of human beings are we that we would place other human beings in that kind of hopeless situation?" she said.

"If we as a country have arrested people who are accused of terrible crimes, then yes, they should have the right of habeas corpus and we are delighted to see that restored. They should have a right to a fair, just trial. And they should be punished if found guilty in courts of law," Dennis added.

The Rev. Richard Kilmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said that despite the ruling he is concerned that detainees still face the possibility of torture even if they quickly file claims to appear in federal court. He also expressed concern for detainees who are being held under similar circumstances in secret prisons around the world.

"It certainly moves us forward," he said. "But it doesn't end U.S.-sponsored torture. ... (Torture) hasn't ended but it has moved us toward the day when torture is no more."

Matt Daloisio said he is hopeful the men being held will soon have their day in court. Daloisio, a member of the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City, was arrested Jan. 11 at the U.S. Supreme Court during a demonstration by the grass-roots organization Witness Against Torture calling upon justices to reverse Bush administration policy regarding the detainees.

"In the sense that we went to the Supreme Court on Jan. 11 to appeal to the justices to make the right decision, five of them did," Daloisio said. "This is the third win (in the courts) for Guantanamo prisoners."

Even so, Daloisio held out little hope that things would change for the detainees in Guantanamo or elsewhere.

"If I was sitting in a cell for six years and told I just won, I don't think I would be too excited. They're still being held," he said.

Harold Nelson, advocacy coordinator for the Washington-based Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, agreed.

"People have been held for six years with no hope," he said. "I doubt the Bush administration has an interest in moving these things along."

END


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