updated 7/12/2004 6:16:47 PM ET 2004-07-12T22:16:47

U.S. officials on Monday began notifying terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that they may use American courts to contest their detention, the Pentagon said.

The 594 prisoners also were informed, in the same one-page document, that they would be allowed to appear before a military panel to challenge their status as “enemy combatants.” That designation, the Bush administration says, gives it the power to hold the detainees indefinitely without access to lawyers.

A process for panels of military officers to consider whether prisoners are properly held as “enemy combatants” was developed after a June 28 Supreme Court decision that allows detainees to challenge their imprisonment in federal courts.

The notice given to detainees Monday does not mention the Supreme Court but states that U.S. courts “have jurisdiction to consider petitions brought by enemy combatants held at this facility that challenge the legality of their detention.”

It said the prisoners will be notified in the near future of procedures available “should you seek to challenge your detention in U.S. courts.” Before the Supreme Court ruling, the Bush administration’s position was that the detainees had no right to use courts of the United States or anywhere else.

The notice was in 17 languages, provided to each prisoner in his native tongue.

Status to be reviewed
Regardless whether a prisoner should choose to go to court, he may have his status as an enemy combatant reviewed by a military panel at Guantanamo Bay. Navy Secretary Gordon England, overseeing the review process, said Friday he hopes to complete the status reviews within four months.

If a panel, which the Pentagon calls a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, should determine that a detainee is not an enemy combatant, he would be set free, England said.

The next step in the review process is for prisoner to be assigned so-called personal representatives, who will be military officers but not lawyers. The representative would be allowed to assist a detainee in presenting his case and be present during the proceedings.

“This is not a criminal trial and the Tribunal will not punish you but will determine whether you are properly held,” the notice said.

Each prisoner who chooses to appear before a status review panel will be given a written statement of the “unclassified factual basis” for his classification as an enemy combatant. A prisoner will be allowed to testify for himself but not compelled to answer questions.

Monday’s notice defined an enemy combatant as an individual who was part of, or associated with, Taliban or al-Qaida forces that engaged in hostilities with U.S. forces.

“The definition includes any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities,” it said.

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