WASHINGTON Some of the Guantanamo prisoners have been unlawfully detained for more than five years and deserve at least a hearing on their challenge to their confinement, their attorneys said on Monday in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The lawyers argued a U.S. appeals court was wrong in its ruling last month that upheld a key part of an anti-terrorism law sought by President George W. Bush that took away the rights of the prisoners to challenge their detention before U.S. federal judges.
They urged the country's high court to decide the issue quickly because the prisoners remain in an unprecedented "legal limbo" with no meaningful way to challenge the lawfulness of their indefinite detention.
The indefinite detention and allegations of prisoner mistreatment at Guantanamo, which the U.S. military denies, have tarnished the United States' image abroad and a chorus of allies have urged Bush to shut down the camp for foreign terrorism suspects.
There currently are about 385 detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The first prisoners arrived more than five years ago after the United States launched its war on terrorism in response to the September 11 attacks.
"At issue in this case is nothing less than this country's commitment to the rule of law," the main attorney, Seth Waxman, a former top U.S. Justice Department lawyer in the Clinton administration, wrote in the appeal filed on Monday.
"Hundreds of men are currently facing lifelong imprisonment without any assurance that they will ever be tried on a criminal charge or given any fair opportunity to challenge the purported basis of their apprehension and detention," he said.
'WORSENING PLIGHT' OF DETAINEES
Attorneys for the prisoners -- six Algerians captured in Bosnia and held at Guantanamo since January 2002 -- cited the deteriorating physical and mental health of those held at Guantanamo.
"Not only are these questions of paramount legal importance, but the extreme and worsening plight of the Guantanamo detainees make them questions of great humanitarian urgency as well," Waxman said.
One issue in the appeal is whether the law adopted last year was valid in stripping U.S. courts of jurisdiction over the challenges by those imprisoned indefinitely at Guantanamo.
The lawyers said the appeals court was wrong to rule that Congress could abolish the writ of habeas corpus -- historic legal rights allowing somebody being held to challenge their detention -- for the Guantanamo prisoners.
They said the Supreme Court should grant the appeal and rule the prisoners have been unlawfully detained by the U.S. government. A second appeal by another group of Guantanamo prisoners is also being filed on Monday.
The Bush administration plans to file its opposition to both appeals on March 21. The Supreme Court is expected to decide whether it will hear the appeals on March 30.
Arguments then could be held on May 7, with a ruling expected by the end of June.
The Supreme Court has twice before slapped down the Bush administration in rulings on Guantanamo.
In 2004 the court ruled that Guantanamo prisoners can sue in U.S. courts and in 2006 struck down the system Bush initially created to try the prisoners.
After the second ruling, Bush went to the then Republican-controlled Congress, which adopted the law that allows tough interrogation and prosecution of terrorism suspects and takes away their right to challenge their detention before U.S. federal judges.