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Supreme Court to rule on ‘combatant’ rights

The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether U.S. citizens' constitutional rights can be violated when they are suspected of being “enemy combatants.”
Jose Padilla, shown in a driver's license photo released shortly after his arrest.Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether the Constitution forbids the Bush administration from holding U.S. citizens indefinitely and without access to lawyers or courts when they are suspected of being “enemy combatants.”

The justices will consider the case of Jose Padilla, an American citizen, former Chicago gang member and convert to Islam who was arrested in his home city after a trip to Pakistan. The government alleges he was part of a plot to detonate a radiological “dirty bomb” in the United States.

The Padilla case is a companion to another terrorism case the court was already set to hear this spring. Together, the Yaser Esam Hamdi and Padilla cases will allow the high court to take its most comprehensive look so far at the constitutional and legal rights of Americans caught up in the global war on terror.

Lawyers for both men claim their treatment is unconstitutional. Hearing the cases together will simultaneously address the rights of U.S. citizens captured abroad and at home.

Issue is central to ‘war on terror’
At issue is the president’s claim of authority to protect the nation and pursue terrorists unfettered by many traditional legal obligations — and outside previous precedents for government conduct in wartime.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear both cases in late April, with a ruling due by summer.

Separately, the court will hear a challenge this spring from foreign-born terror suspects held in open-ended custody at the military’s prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That case asks whether those more than 650 prisoners may challenge their detention and treatment in U.S. courts.

Critics in the United States and abroad have grumbled that the prolonged detentions violate basic human rights and international agreements. A ruling in the Guantanamo case is also expected by summer.

The Padilla and Hamdi cases hit closer to home for most Americans.

Padilla was arrested on U.S. soil, and the initial allegations against him were aired in the civilian criminal court system. He was later whisked to a military prison in South Carolina, where he was denied contact with his lawyer or other outsiders for nearly two years.

Defendant granted contact with lawyers
Earlier this month, the Bush administration said Padilla could now see his lawyers, although the government still contends it has no legal obligation to allow such a meeting.

The government listened in on a recent, similar meeting between Hamdi and a defense lawyer.

Hamdi is a suspected Taliban foot soldier captured overseas shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He was placed alongside Padilla in the same South Carolina brig after U.S. authorities verified his claim that he had been born in Louisiana of Saudi parents.

The administration claims that Padilla, Hamdi and the Guantanamo prisoners are all “enemy combatants,” potential al-Qaida terrorists or their Taliban protectors captured since the jetliner attacks that killed thousands in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.

Padilla is closely associated with the al-Qaida terrorist network and “represents a continuing, present and grave danger to the national security of the United States,” while Hamdi is a “classic battlefield detainee,” Solicitor General Theodore Olson has argued to the high court in legal papers.

Appeals court ruled against administration
A federal appeals court ruled in December that President Bush does not have the authority to declare Padilla an enemy combatant and hold him in open-ended military custody.

The ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “undermines the president’s vital authority as commander in chief to protect the United States against attacks launched within the nation’s borders,” Olson argued in asking the high court to take the case.

Unlike the Padilla case, the government has won its argument in lower courts that Hamdi may be held indefinitely without access to a lawyer or the U.S. court system.

The case is Rumsfeld v. Padilla, 03-1027.

In a related development, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Thursday that five Britons being held in the U.S. military prison Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be sent home home within a few weeks, and could be arrested by British authorities upon their return.

The five to return were identified as Rhuhel Ahmed, Tarek Dergoul, Jamal al-Harith, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul.

Discussions about four other British prisoners at the American base were continuing, he told a news conference in London.

Danish prisoner to go free
Also Thursday, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen told his parliament that a Dane held at Guantanamo Bay also will soon be released.

Danish media have identified him as Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane. He was transferred to the U.S. Naval base in Cuba in February 2001 after being captured in Afghanistan.

“Under Danish law it is not possible to put him on trial. He will come to Denmark as a free man,” Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said during a debate in parliament.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the detainee would be released soon. He did not provide a more specific time frame.

Five other Guantanamo prisoners — a Spaniard and four Saudi Arabians — were recently released and returned to their countries for detention or possible prosecution.

In Washington, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the countries involved had assured the United States that the men being returned would not pose a future threat.