Well perhaps not quite. But yesterday’s decision by the US Supreme Court, revoking the Court’s decision from April this year on the right of detainees at the Guantanamo Detention Centre to have hebaeus corpus cases heard in Federal Courts, can hardly be underestimated. The decision follows a prolonged battle in US courts over the rights of Guantanamo detainees under US law and the legality of the military tribunals set up by the US administration to prosecute so-called “enemy combatants”.
Under US law enacted as part of the “war against terror” prisoners in US detention classed as “unlawful enemy combatants” can only be trialed by the special military tribunals set up by the US administration. The military tribunals operate, as the name implies, in the military framework and curb a number of proceedings known from the civil courts. However, this was challenged in February this year by one of the detainees awaiting trial at the Guantanamo camp in an Appeals Court in the District of Columbia. The Appeals Courts upheld the law – a ruling that was then appealed to the Supreme Court in April this year. In its April decision the Supreme Court rejected the detainee’s appeal. It is this decision that has now been reversed by the Supreme Court and the Court is likely to instigate proceedings in its coming term in October. At the centre of the coming proceedings will, inter alia, be the question of whether the institution of habeas corpus covers foreigners held outside US territory.
The turn in opinion comes as the former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, reiterated his call for the closure of the Guantanamo Detention Centre and the abolition of the system of military tribunals. Recently President Bush did himself hint at the possibility of closing the camp. The closure of the camp, which has become a disgrace to the Bush administration alongside the Abu Graib prison scandal, would certainly be a welcomed change, albeit a belated one. Provided of course, the Bush administration does not close the Guantanamo camp simply to boost its programme of extraordinary rendition as a way of dealing with foreign prisoners.