The US Supreme Court ruled Thursday
Guantanamo detainees can challenge their detention in federal courts in another
legal blow to President George W Bush and his handling of the war on terrorism.
The high court decided 5-4 in favour of detainees, granting them the right under the US Constitution to challenge their status as "unlawful enemy combatants" and their detention in the prison at the naval station in Cuba.
"The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
The decision marked the third time the Supreme Court has ruled against the Bush administration's policy for holding and trying detainees in the war on terrorism, and scored a victory for civil rights advocates who charge the White House was denying detainees basic rights under the law.
"Todays ruling reaffirms the vision of our founders, and helps restore the credibility of the United States as a leading advocate and model for the rule of law across the globe," said William H Neukom, president of the American Bar Association.
There are about 270 detainees being held at Guantanamo. Thirteen of them have been charged with crimes and are facing a trial under the military commissions set up by Bush. The Pentagon has said it intends to charge about 80 detainees.
The prisoners who have not been charged are being held as enemy combatants whose release, the Bush administration argues, would jeopardize US national security. The White House has sought to prevent them from challenges their status in federal courts.
But the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene versus Bush that even though the detainees are not held on US soil, the Guantanamo base is controlled by the US government.
The ruling could have an effect on the tribunals that are already underway, but it would likely be minimal since those detainees have already been charged with crimes, said Jennifer Daksal, an attorney at Human Rights Watch in Washington.
"It has a very limited, if any, effect on the tribunal process," she said.
Chief Justice John Roberts criticized the majority for opening the door for the federal courts to interfere with national security officials trying to protect the country.
"All that today's opinion has done is shift responsibility for those sensitive foreign policy and national security decisions from the elected branches to the federal judiciary," Roberts wrote in his dissent.
The US military has already begun the trials in a handful of cases. The tribunal of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks began on Thursday.
Mohammed and four co-defendants appeared together in court after years of secret confinement by the CIA before they were transferred to Guantanamo in 2006. All five have been charged with war crimes and could face the death penalty if convicted.
Mohammed dismissed his attorneys and the judge granted him permission to represent himself. It was the first time he was seen publicly since his capture in 2003. He told the court he wanted to be executed to fulfil his desire to become a martyr, dpa reported.