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Rare high court appeal over Guantanamo trials

/ Source: The Associated Press

Lawyers for an alleged al-Qaida member have filed an unusual appeal at the Supreme Court challenging the government’s strategy in holding military trials for terror suspects in Cuba.

Earlier this month a federal judge blocked the first planned trial, and lawyers for the accused enemy combatant in that case are trying to bypass an appeals court and get the issue before the high court immediately.

The Bush administration has defended its plans for military commission trials, resurrected from World War II, at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson said the government must first determine that the suspects are not prisoners of war, a status that would entitle them to more legal rights. He also ruled that the guidelines for the trials must be changed.

An appeals court had agreed to hear the administration’s appeal on a fast-track schedule, but the Supreme Court was asked late Monday to review the case before a decision is reached by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Such direct appeals to the Supreme Court are rare.

The appeal filed on behalf of Osama bin Laden’s former driver, said that courts, alleged enemy combatants “and the world community stand to benefit from clear guidance as to how the United States may wage the legal war on terror in the future.”

“Our country has a pressing need to know that those implicated in that war are being treated in the way the Constitution, our statutes, and the laws of war demand,” Washington attorney Neal Katyal wrote in the appeal for Salim Ahmed Hamdan.

Hamdan, 34, of Yemen, is charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes, murder and terrorism. He says that he never supported terrorism.

The government has been holding Hamdan and about 550 other men from more than 40 countries in Cuba, including some for nearly three years. Only four have been charged.

The Supreme Court ruled in June that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay may challenge their captivity in American courts, a major defeat for the Bush administration.

Hamdan’s attorneys urged the Supreme Court to decide by Dec. 3 whether to hear the latest case, which presents a broader question of government power in prosecuting wartime prisoners. Justices could schedule arguments next spring.

The Bush administration has insisted that al-Qaida fighters are not covered by Geneva Conventions and that the ruling in Hamdan’s favor hurts the government’s war on terrorism.

The latest case is Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.