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The US Supreme Court ruling recognizing the right of Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detention in civilian courts deals a stunning blow to the Bush administration’s detention policies. The lead plaintiffs in the case are Bosnian Lakhdar Boumediene and Kuwaiti Fawzi al-Odah, who are both being held at Guantanamo without charge.

The right of prisoners to challenge the legal basis of their detention, the centuries-old right known as habeas corpus, provides a basic check against the abuses inherent in unfettered executive power. The June 12, 2008, ruling in Boumediene v. Bush undermines the Bush administration’s practice of holding terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay in indefinite detention.

“The Supreme Court decision has stripped Guantanamo of its reason for being: a law-free zone where prisoners can’t challenge their detention,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “The ruling is not only a landmark victory for justice, it’s a big step toward establishing a smarter, more effective counterterrorism policy.”

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, rejects the Bush administration’s argument that prisoners can be held for years without a fair process for assessing the evidence against them. It means that the federal courts – which are equipped with the procedures necessary to protect sensitive national security information – will now be able to examine the basis for detainees’ claims that they are wrongly held.

In reaching its decision, the court rejected the administration’s assertion that the procedures established in the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 were an adequate substitute for habeas. The Boumediene ruling is based on the US Constitution, unlike the court’s 2004 decision in Rasul v. Bush, which would make it more difficult to overrule by legislation.

The Supreme Court’s ruling firmly rejects the Bush administration’s view of Guantanamo as a “law-free zone,” which provided the original impetus for transferring hundreds of men for detention there.

It also represents an important step toward ending the administration’s use of military commissions, set up to try foreign terrorism suspects at Guantanamo. As Human Rights Watch has long argued, these commissions are vulnerable to illegitimate political influence, permit the use of coerced evidence and hearsay, and place undue restrictions on the ability of military and civilian defense counsel to present an effective defense. The ruling, by raising questions about the determination of enemy combatant status, further shows that the process underlying the military commissions does not meet international fair trial standards.

“The Boumediene decision so undermines Guantanamo’s distorted system that it should sound the camp’s death knell,” Roth said. “It sends a clear signal to the Bush administration that they should close Guantanamo and stop holding people in indefinite detention without charge.”

Human Rights Watch believes that detainees who are implicated in terrorist crimes should be transferred to the federal court system for trial. In recent years, the federal courts have proven that they have capacity and expertise to handle complex terrorism prosecutions involving evidence obtained overseas. Their rulings will have the credibility necessary to command respect worldwide.

Human Rights Watch filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief in Boumediene v. Bush. The Supreme Court’s ruling represents a complete victory for the position that the brief advocated.

“Today’s ruling puts an end to the Bush administration’s vision of unchecked executive power,” Roth said. “It will be welcomed around the world as a sign that the era of US lawlessness in fighting terrorism is over.”

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