In a historic ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said yesterday that suspected terrorists held for years by the Bush administration at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had been denied their constitutional right to habeas corpus. It was a welcome assertion of a basic principle of American justice that should foreshadow an early closing of the Guantanamo facility.
There is no doubt that terrorism is a serious threat to American security that should be battled vigorously. But honoring the right of the suspects at Guantanamo to challenge the legal basis of their imprisonment in an American court of law is a far cry from setting terrorists free. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority: "The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times."
Despite the court's strongly worded 5-4 decision, the long-running battle over the legality of the military tribunals set up to try prisoners at Guantanamo is far from over. Even with the right to hearings upheld by the court, prisoners - some of whom have been held in virtual solitary confinement without being formally charged for more than six years - are likely to face more long delays with severely limited representation while being denied basic legal rights, including the right to see charges and evidence against them.
Supporters of the Guantanamo tribunals say those held there are enemy combatants being tried on foreign soil and thus are not entitled to constitutional protections. Justice Antonin Scalia said that the United States is "at war with radical Islamists" and that the ruling "will almost certainly cause more Americans to get killed." But in yesterday's decision, the court rightly pushed those arguments aside. "Security subsists, too, in fidelity to freedom's first principles," wrote Justice Kennedy.
Both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain have promised to close Guantanamo if elected president. President Bush should quickly do the same and give the prisoners fair trials in the United States.