A federal appeals court in Washington ruled Friday that detainees held by the U.S. in Afghanistan are not entitled to the same right as prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to challenge their indefinite detention.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously that prisoners held at a military prison at Bagram Air Base are in a "theater of war" and not under the jurisdiction of the U.S. civilian courts.
The judges also found an important distinction between prisoners held at Guantanamo and those held at Bagram, declaring that "the surrounding circumstances are hardly the same."
"The U.S. has maintained total control over Guantanamo for over a century. ... In Bagram, there is no indication of any intent to occupy the base with permanence," the judges said.
The ruling was promptly hailed by Republican lawmakers who backed the Obama administration's continuation of Bush administration policy on the issue.
"This is a big win," declared Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.
Graham, a prominent voice on the detainee issue, said that a decision in favor of the detainees "would have dealt a severe blow to our war effort." Graham praised President Obama for "standing firm and opposing the lower court ruling."
The top House Republican overseeing the Justice Department, Lamar Smith of Texas, also offered a compliment to the White House.
"The Obama administration rightly appealed the lower court decision, adhering to the Bush administration's position that enemy combatant detainees held by the U.S. military in foreign war zones are not entitled to the same rights and freedoms as U.S. citizens," Smith said.
The ruling written by Judge David Sentelle overturns a decision by a U.S. District Court judge that the detainees were entitled to U.S. court review.
The decision drew the condemnation of civil liberties and human rights groups.
"Today's decision ratifies the dangerous principle that the U.S. government has unchecked power to capture people anywhere in the world, unilaterally declare them enemy combatants and subject them to indefinite military detention with no judicial review and little to no process for challenging their detention in any forum," said Melissa Goodman, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Appeals Court, however, may not have the last word. Attorneys for the two Yemenis and one Tunisian who brought the suit have indicated that they are likely to appeal the ruling to the full Circuit Court or to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 that Guantanamo Bay detainees are entitled to have their continued imprisonment reviewed by federal judges, paved the way for judges to order the release of several of them.