WASHINGTON -- Detainees at the US "war on terror" prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba won an important legal fight Thursday but the battle ahead is likely to go on until a political solution is found, experts say.
By a vote of 5-4, the US Supreme Court ruled that the around 270 detainees still at Guantanamo have a right to challenge their detention in US civilian courts, and recognized that this right was guaranteed by the US Constitution.
A flood of such cases are now expected to sweep into the courtrooms of a dozen or so federal judges in Washington, where around 200 have already been brought but were put on hold until the question of their validity was resolved.
Thursday's ruling should now give the prisoners and their legal teams the right to demand to know on what basis they are being held.
These judges are expected to convene in the coming days to determine how to proceed with this monumental and confusing task, because although the high court said prisoners "are entitled to a prompt habeas corpus hearing," it did not specify what legal criteria to follow.
"I expect we'll call in the lawyers from both sides to see what suggestions they have for how we can approach our task most effectively and efficiently," said Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the DC District Court.
The judges will have to define how and to what extent each detainee may have access to the charges against him -- a prickly legal question as such information has been regarded as classified for national security reasons -- a process that could take months.
And the judges are still unclear on what to do with detainees who are slated for release but risk torture if returned to their home countries.
The Supreme Court made no mention of the controversial military tribunals where some 80 detainees are expected to face trial, but does open the door to appeals before military and civilian judges.
Defense lawyers say the high court's ruling will allow them to demand better prison conditions for their clients, many of whom have been isolated in small cells under intense security conditions for years.
"We have grounds to assert constitutional rights that before we were told did not apply," said lawyer Suzanne Lachelier, who represents Ramzi ben al-Shaiba, one of five suspects in the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The five, which also includes alleged 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were read charges against them last week and their trials were due to get fully underway in July or August.
"So that's going to build in at the very least a lot of delay as we try to weigh through what rights apply, and we assert those rights before the court," she said.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the Supreme Court's ruling should not affect military commission trials, which will "continue to go forward."
Carr said that to the extent that the high court ruling "addresses matters that could affect the commission trials, those matters will initially be litigated before the military commissions themselves," according to a statement.
"In the event of a conviction, the accused will have the right to appeal to both military and federal appellate courts."
Rights groups said Thursday's ruling -- even though it said nothing about the rights of those detained in secret CIA prisons or military bases such as Bagram in Afghanistan -- effectively annulled the Guantanamo detention facility's reason for being and relaunched appeals for it to close.
"The Supreme Court decision has stripped Guantanamo of its reason for being: a law-free zone where prisoners can't challenge their detention," said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch.
The decision "so undermines Guantanamo's distorted system that it should sound the camp's death knell," Roth said.
Both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, competing to be the next US president, have called for closing the Guantanamo prison camp.
© 2008 Agence France-Presse
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