The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday morning issued a stunning ruling: that the United States government may seize suspected terrorists outside the United States, send them to the U.S.-run Bagram detention center in Afghanistan, and thereby deprive them of the right to challenge their detention in federal court.
The question came up in the case of Maqaleh v. Gates, which involves two Yemenis and a Tunisian, one of whom was arrested in Thailand, and all of whom were flown from outside Afghanistan to Bagram by U.S. authorities and imprisoned there. They've been there, without charge or trial, for the past seven years.
The D.C. court relied heavily on the fact that these three men, all suspected of ties to terrorism, are being held in a battlefield prison in a theater of active war. But as American University law professor Steven Vladeck points out, the only reason they were "in theater" is because the U.S. government had decided to move them there. So this case stands for "the proposition that location of capture is less important than location of detention--and that, so long as the latter is in a zone of active combat operations, there will be no habeas."
The case isn't necessarily over, because the detainees could ask for rehearing or appeal to the Supreme Court. But in the meantime, it highlights the absurdity of the United States' claim that the entire world is a battleground and suspected terrorists seized anywhere can be held by the U.S. government as enemy belligerents without the opportunity to challenge that in an impartial federal court. Although the laws of war do allow detention of some belligerents captured on a battlefield in an international conflict, there's nothing in U.S. or international law that authorizes capture of alleged enemies anywhere in the world to be brought to a battlefield where the U.S. is fighting local insurgents, for purposes of their indefinite detention.
The United States continues, however, to detain more than 800 prisoners at Bagram, on very shaky legal ground. To be sure, the U.S. military does eventually offer them some form of a hearing to decide whether they're actually "belligerents" fighting U.S. forces. But as Human Rights First has pointed out before, the procedures in those hearings -- although improved during the Obama administration -- still don't come near providing real due process.
For one thing, the 800 + detainees at Bagram have no right to a lawyer. Although they are assigned a "personal representative" by the military to represent them, there are only about eight such representatives available to represent more than 800 prisoners, and none of them are lawyers. Meanwhile, their own ability to collect evidence and call witnesses is limited to whatever is deemed "reasonably available" by the military. On top of that, much of the evidence used to justify detaining the suspects has been classified; the suspects themselves never actually get to see it. So how can they defend themselves, or even inform their "personal representative" of the relevant facts, if they don't know what evidence is being used against them, or the credibility of whoever provided it?
Setting aside the broader issue of who's a belligerent and who gets to decide, Friday's decision underscores the importance of the Obama administration providing a meaningful way for Bagram detainees to challenge their detention.
Improving those procedures isn't only a matter of the meeting its obligations under international law. It also has very practical implications.
The U.S. military has said repeatedly that its strategy in Afghanistan depends on winning the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people. Only by providing legitimate public proceedings that afford detainees a meaningful ability to challenge their detention can the United States ever hope to win that critical battle.
This post has been updated.