By Maria E. Molina
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America
WASHINGTON, D.C., United States – The Obama administration has told a federal court that detainees currently being held in Afghanistan are unlawful combatants not subject to the Geneva Conventions and can be held without charge for as long as the conflict in Afghanistan continues. In a two-sentence filing late Friday, the Justice Department said that the new administration had reviewed its position in a case brought by prisoners at the United States Air Force base at Bagram, just north of the Afghan capital. The Obama team determined that the Bush policy was correct: such prisoners cannot sue for their release. The closely watched case is a habeas corpus lawsuit on behalf of several prisoners who have been indefinitely detained for years without trial.
The Bush administration had argued that federal courts have no jurisdiction to hear such a case because the prisoners are noncitizens being held in the course of military operations outside the United States. The power of civilian federal judges to review individual decisions by the executive branch to hold a terrorism suspect as an enemy combatant was one of the most contentious legal issues surrounding the Bush administration. For years, President Bush’s legal team argued that federal judges had no authority under the Constitution to hear challenges by detainees being held at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere.
Rights lawyers have been hoping that courts would extend those rulings to allow long-term detainees being held at United States military bases elsewhere in the world to sue for release, too. There are about 600 detainees at Bagram and several thousand in Iraq.
Some observers believed that the Obama team would end up making a major change in policy but simply needed more time to come up with it, while others believed that the administration had decided.
For more information, please see:
IPS News – RIGHTS-US: What About Bagram? – 25 February 2009
Periodico – U.S. President Backs Bush Policy on Bagram Detainees – 23 February 2009
AFP – Obama draws fire for ‘terror’ detainee moves – 21 February 2009
NY Times – Obama Upholds Detainee Policy in Afghanistan – 21 February 2009
Voice of America – Obama Backs Bush on Afghanistan Detainees – 21 February 2009