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IN THE NEWS - Supreme Court Hearings on Guantanamo Prisoners - 2004-04-24

Broadcast: April 24, 2004

This is Bob Doughty with In the News, in VOA Special English.

The United States Supreme Court heard arguments this week about the rights of foreign terrorism suspects. The cases involve prisoners held at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

About six-hundred men from more than forty countries are held there. Most were captured during fighting in Afghanistan. This followed the September eleventh, two-thousand-one, attacks on the United States by al-Qaida.

Osama bin Laden’s group had camps in Afghanistan with support from the Taleban, which ruled the country. Those held are suspected members of al-Qaida or Taleban fighters.

The Supreme Court heard appeals in cases brought by family members of sixteen British, Australian and Kuwaiti citizens. These are current or former prisoners at Guantanamo. Many have been held for two years. They have been not charged with crimes or permitted to speak directly with lawyers.

Human rights groups and foreign governments have criticized the situation. The Bush administration has refused to declare those held at Guantanamo prisoners of war. People who are declared prisoners of war have legal rights. They are protected by the rules of the Geneva Conventions.

Instead, the administration has declared the men unlawful enemy combatants. It says it has the right to hold them as long as necessary. Two lower federal courts have agreed.

The administration bases its case on a Supreme Court ruling from nineteen-fifty. The high court ruled that foreign prisoners held outside the United States in connection with a war are not protected by a federal law. This law permits prisoners to dispute the government's right to hold them.

Ted Olson is the top lawyer for the Bush administration. He told the nine justices that the United States is at war. His wife, Barbara, was among three-thousand people killed in the September eleventh attacks. Mister Olson argued that the Guantanamo naval base is outside the control of the federal courts.

He said the base is still officially a part of Cuba. The United States has control of the base under agreements reached with Cuba one-hundred years ago.

Retired federal judge John Gibbons represented the suspects. Mister Gibbons argued that American law does govern the base. He said the men should have a right to defend themselves in American courts.

The Supreme Court justices appeared divided as they questioned the lawyers.

The Bush administration has released one-hundred-forty-six prisoners from Guantanamo during the past two years. It also has announced plans to put six people on trial before a military court.

Next week, the Supreme Court will hear two more cases. These involve American citizens held as enemy combatants. The court is expected to give its decisions by the end of June.

In the News, in VOA Special English, was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Bob Doughty.