The Pentagon on Thursday reaffirmed the need for the Guantanamo prison even though the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the system of military tribunals put in place to try the prisoners.
The prison commander had earlier said such a ruling would not affect the running of the camp and prisoners’ lawyers said it may do little to secure their freedom in the short term.
About 450 suspected al Qaeda and Taliban captives are held behind the razor wire fence on a dusty, sun-baked bluff at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. Some have been held at Guantanamo since the prison camp opened in January 2002.
Senior administration officials, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said the ruling “does not in any way affect the ability of the president as commander in chief to detain enemy combatants” at Guantanamo.
“It goes only to the question of trial by military commission,” one official said.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Guantanamo is an important detention and intelligence-gathering facility that holds dangerous men.
“It serves as a place where we’re able to learn about terrorist networks, their operations, their activities. It enables us to thwart future attacks,” Whitman said at the Pentagon after the ruling.
The ruling found that military tribunals created by the U.S. government to try detainees violated the Geneva Conventions and U.S. military rules.
Only 10 Guantanamo detainees have been charged and faced trials under the system. The Yemeni defendant whose case was heard by the high court, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was told of the ruling in a phone call from his lawyer, according to a Guantanamo spokesman who could not provide further details.
Military lawyers planned to travel to Guantanamo to tell the other defendants but did not know what legal steps would come next, said Marine Col. Dwight Sullivan, chief defense counsel for the tribunals.
“I think we’re more studying and working right now than celebrating,” Sullivan said.
GOAL TO CLOSE GUANTANAMO
Michael Ratner, president of a New York-based group representing about 200 detainees, said the ruling was “another building block in our ultimate goal to shut down Guantanamo, and a very big one.”
Ratner, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the ruling appeared to allow detainees to press forward with individual federal court challenges to continued detention.
The camp commander, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, said in an interview this week before the ruling was announced: “I don’t think there’s any direct outcome on our detention operation.”
Critics had called the tribunals rigged to ensure conviction and devoid of the basic rights granted to suspects in the U.S. justice system or to recognized prisoners of war.
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Layne Morris, who was blinded in the right eye by shrapnel in a firefight where one of the Guantanamo defendants was captured, said he was disappointed in the ruling. Morris had agreed to testify against Canadian detainee Omar Khadr and said he did not believe the normal U.S. justice system could deal satisfactorily with these prisoners.
“I guess I don’t agree with giving these people all of the legal rights that citizens have,” Morris said in a phone call with Reuters from Utah.
(Additional reporting by Will Dunham in Washington)
© 2006 Reuters