Video: Legal battle looms over Guantanamo

By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/9/2005 7:49:09 PM ET 2005-06-09T23:49:09

WASHINGTON — While the debate goes on over the future of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, there's a very real legal battle raging over the detainees themselves and what's to become of them. How much leeway should they have to challenge their legal status?

The federal courts are still struggling to define exactly what legal rights the Guantanamo detainees have, after the Supreme Court's ruling one year ago that they can challenge their detentions.

Lawyers for the detainees say they must have the chance to get their cases before federal judges in the United States.

"We still don't know really who they are or what they've done," says Barbara Olshansky. "And that, I think, is a tremendous stain on this nation's credibility."

The courts are split, one ruling in favor of detainees getting that kind of court review, one against. The cases are on appeal.

Another issue: Military trials for detainees actually charged with war crimes. The government ran into a legal roadblock over those tribunals at Guantanamo Bay. Hearings are on hold.

And a third concern surrounds transferring detainees. A federal judge has stopped the government from sending them to be held in their home countries without giving their lawyers the chance to contest the moves.

But former government lawyer David Rivkin says the detainees are terrorists and that if they were given the same legal protection as enemy soldiers, it would send the wrong message.

"Everybody is treated the same way," says Rivkin, who worked at the Department of Justice during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. "You have dramatically eroded the symbolism, and after all, this is the war of ideas and symbols as much as the war of substance."

Thursday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld raised a practical issue about Guantanamo Bay.

"You know, a whole lot of questions come to mind. If you closed it, where would you go?" he said.

Wherever that may be, lawyers for the detainees are against shutting down the camps at Guantanamo Bay until the courts give them a chance to argue that they've been wrongly held.

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