LONDON – Some saw the beginning of the end for Guantanamo Bay, others a vindication for Europeans who have condemned the U.S. prison camp. Still others saw a toothless ruling that will ultimately make no difference in a climate where they believe Washington is determined to have its way.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday that President Bush overstepped his authority in ordering military trials for a handful of Guantanamo Bay detainees provoked a range of reactions, from jubilation to deep skepticism.
In immediate terms, the decision will simply force the United States to look for other ways to try some 10 men charged with crimes. But some people saw wider implications – predicting it could force the Bush administration to address the continued detention of about 430 others, many held for more than four years without charge.
“A lot of us remain skeptical of what this decision will actually accomplish because it only applies to the handful of men who have been charged and Bush has not respected past court decisions,” said Moazamm Begg, 37, who was held at Guantanamo for more than two years. “That said, I’m very glad to hear the news and hope it will be the beginning of the end for many of these men.”
The camp has been a delicate diplomatic issue between the United States and Europe, where Britain’s Attorney General Lord Peter Goldsmith said America had betrayed its own principles of freedom, liberty and justice.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had also called for the camp’s closure. Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush’s closest ally in the war against terror, even called the camp an anomaly.
The camp came under worldwide condemnation shortly after it opened more than four years ago, when pictures captured prisoners kneeling, shackled and being herded into wire cages. It intensified after reports of prisoner abuse, heavy-handed interrogations, hunger strikes, suicides and accounts from released detainees who described years of desperation associated with the legal limbo that has ensnared hundreds of prisoners.
“In a diplomatic point of view, this (ruling) is going to increasingly marginalize the United States politically within those parts of the European Union that have always had misgivings about Guantanamo,” said Sonya Sceats, an international human rights law expert for Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “The decision will increase pressure on the European Union for the return of nationals remaining at Guantanamo Bay.”
Some EU leaders have called for detainees to be tried in the International Criminal Court, but the Bush administration has maintained that the men – accused of links to Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime or to al-Qaida – are enemy combatants, a classification that has afforded them fewer rights under the Geneva Conventions than if they were declared prisoners of war.
The EU has called for the camp’s closure, saying that prisoners were held in a legal vacuum.
Charles Parker, a terrorism researcher at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, said the EU is likely to applaud the Supreme Court’s ruling that the military courts violated the Geneva Convention.
“It vindicates what they have been saying all along,” Parker said.
Bob Ayers, a homeland security and intelligence expert at Chatham House, predicted the ruling will have little impact.
“Basically I don’t think the decision is going to make any difference. The United States is not going to turn all of these people loose. The EU has not said, ‘Send them to us and we’ll house them for you.’ What is the solution?”
Amnesty International, one of the most vocal critics of the detention center, hailed the ruling.
“Today’s Supreme Court ruling blocking the military commissions set up by President George W. Bush is a victory for the rule of law and human rights, the London-based group said.
The former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan under the Taliban, who spent almost four years in Guantanamo before being released in September, said the facility’s military tribunals were “an insult to humanity and human rights.”
“The Supreme Court must be neutral and must respect human rights. They must give justice,” Abdul Salam Zaeef said in the Afghan capital, Kabul. “It was a good decision to condemn Bush’s decision, which was not correct, not good.”
Lawyers for the handful of detainees who have been charged said the ruling could be the beginning of the end of the prison camp.
“There certainly will be some fallout from this, and it may very well lead to the closing of Guantanamo Bay in the near future,” said Army Maj. Tom Fleener, who represents Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al-Bahlul, a Yemeni.
“Just by the court ruling essentially that Guantanamo is not a lawless area and that we have to comply with Geneva Conventions, it’s going to change everything from how people are held to interrogation techniques that are used to the types of information they can have or can’t have.”
British lawmakers said the ruling could force the United States into a firm decision on the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo.
Mike Gapes, chairman of Britain’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, saw three options – “to release those who can be safely released, to prosecute others within properly and in accordance with U.S law and to send the rest back to their home countries, who can decide whether they should be prosecuted or not.”
Jose Diaz, spokesman for U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, welcomed the ruling.
“The decision is a case of restoring the judiciary to its proper place in a system of checks and balances, which is essential in upholding the rule of law,” he said.