Legal challenges brought on behalf of nine Guantanamo detainees

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Lawyers have filed suit demanding the U.S. government justify its detention of nine foreign terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The challenges, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court in Washington, are the first since the Supreme Court's ruling this week that the prisoners may use American courts to contest their detentions.

"This is the beginning of trying to enforce precisely what the Supreme Court mandated as a way to obtain justice," said Jeffrey Fogel, legal director of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. "The first step is that the government has to respond."

Challenges were filed on behalf of two British citizens, three French citizens, a German Turk, a Jordanian Palestinian refugee, an Iraqi refugee and a Canadian.

More lawsuits are expected on behalf of other prisoners. About 600 men from more than 40 countries are being held on suspicion of links to al-Qaida or the fallen Taliban regime of Afghanistan. Some of the detainees have been at the prison for more than 2 1/2 years, with little or no contact with the outside world. Just four have had access to lawyers and three have been charged. Those named in the petitions Friday are not among them.

Fogel said the petitions were filed by lawyers from various law firms working in conjunction with the Center for Constitutional Rights. The lawyers were acting with the consent of the prisoners' families, he said.

In the petitions, some of which named multiple detainees, the attorneys said the government has exceeded its constitutional authority and asked the court to "declare that the prolonged, indefinite, and restrictive detention of (the detainees) is arbitrary and unlawful."

The Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal organization, also sent Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld a letter on Thursday demanding access to 53 prisoners at Guantanamo. The Pentagon had yet to respond.

"No decision has been made on how we are going to comply with the Supreme Court ruling," said Maj. Michael Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman. "The ruling wasn't simple and while we certainly will comply, the exact manner is still being discussed."

The Bush administration contends the men are "enemy combatants" who pose a threat to America and can be held without legal rights. The Supreme Court rejected the administration's argument that the detainees could not take their complaints to U.S. courts.

The British citizens, Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi, are among six detainees Bush has said are candidates for the tribunal the military has formed to preside over trials of terror suspects.

Two of the nine were seized in Gambia, lawyers said _ Jamil El-Banna, a Jordanian Palestinian refugee, and Bisher Al-Rawi, an Iraqi refugee, both of whom had been living in Britain.

The others named in the petitions include:

_ French citizens Mourad Benchallali, Nizar Sassi and Ridouane Khalid, all of whom according to lawyers were seized in Pakistan. Lawyers said Benchallali and Sassi were studying the Quran at the time, while Khalid was studying Arabic.

_ Murat Kurnaz, a German Turk whom the lawyers said was detained in Pakistan.

_ Omar Khadr, a Canadian who the lawyers said is 17.

The New York Times, citing senior American and British officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, reported on its Web site Saturday that the United States agreed to return five terrorism suspects from Guantanamo as part of a secret deal with Britain and Saudi Arabia, two important U.S. allies in the Iraq war who had faced criticism domestically for their support.

The suspects were sent home from Cuba in May 2003. In August 2003 Saudi officials released five Britons, a Canadian and a Belgian convicted of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, the report said. At the time, there was no indication the releases were liked, the sources said.

A spokesman for the National Security Council denied that the Guantanamo detainees were released in exchange for the British prisoners. "There is no recollection here of any linkage between these two actions," said Sean McCormick.

American officials who questioned the transfer of the Guantanamo prisoners told the paper that there were concerns the men might be dangerous. Saudi officials gave varying accounts of the ex-prisoners whereabouts, and it was unclear if any were being held in Saudi custody.


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