WASHINGTON — A federal judge ruled Monday that some foreign terror suspects held in Cuba can challenge their confinement in U.S. courts and she criticized the Bush administration for holding hundreds of people indefinitely as “enemy combatants,” saying that doing so unconstitutionally violates their right to due process.
U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green, handling claims filed by more than 50 detainees, said the U.S. Supreme Court made clear last year that the prisoners have constitutional rights that lower courts should enforce.
"The petitioners have stated valid claims under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution that the procedures implemented by the government to confirm that the petitioners are 'enemy combatants' subject to indefinite detention violate the petitioners' rights to due process of law," Green wrote in her 75-page opinion (requires Adobe Acrobat).
"Although this nation unquestionably must take strong action under the leadership of the commander in chief to protect itself against enormous and unprecedented threats, 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," she added.
The finding that the detainees were being denied rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution was focused on hearings set up by the government to determine if the prisoners are "enemy combatants." Those hearings, called Combatant Status Review Tribunals, had been criticized by civil rights groups because detainees are not represented by lawyers and have few legal rights.
Green also said that some detainees had filed "valid claims" under the Geneva Convention, which mandates humane treatment of prisoners of war, and can argue that their indefinite detentions violate that treaty.
Barbara Olshansky, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing detainees, praised the decision.
“Her opinion sends a message to the rest of the world that democracy is still here,” she said.
Justice Department to review decision
White House spokesman Scott McClellan took issue with the ruling, noting that it was directly at odds with an opinion by another federal judge last week and saying the Justice Department “will review this matter.”
Bush administration attorneys had argued that as "enemy combatants," the prisoners have no constitutional rights and their lawsuits, challenging the conditions of their confinement and seeking their release, must be dismissed. They also have argued that the suspected terrorists are not covered by the Geneva Convention since the accused were not engaged in an armed conflict between nations.
The tribunals, formally called a military commission, at the base were authorized by President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but have been criticized by human rights groups as being fundamentally unfair to defendants.
Green's opinion is the unclassified version made available for public release. It stemmed from 11 cases involving Guantanamo prisoners.
Her ruling probably will not be the final word on the issue. A different federal judge in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19 dismissed the cases of seven Guantanamo prisoners on the grounds that they have no recognizable constitutional rights and are subject to the military review process.
Another judge sees case differently
In that case, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon concluded that foreign citizens captured and detained outside the United States have no rights under the Constitution or international law.
A third federal judge, U.S. District Judge James Robertson, ruled in November that because defendants in military trials are accorded fewer legal rights than prisoners of war, the proceedings deny them their basic legal rights. Robertson ordered the military to come up with a new procedure in a ruling that the government is appealing.
Ultimately, the conflicting rulings are expected to reach the Supreme Court.
NBC News' Pete Williams and the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.