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Detainee ruling rejects Bush terror-war tactic

An appeals court said Monday it retains jurisdiction to decide military-custody issue.

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Suspected Al Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh al-Marri had been held for four years in military detention – with no indication from the US government when or how his imprisonment might end.

On the surface, his treatment seemed no different than any of the hundreds of terror suspects held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But Mr. Marri is confined in a military brig in the United States, not Cuba.

On Monday, that difference proved decisive in prompting a federal appeals court panel to reject what had been a sweeping argument by the Justice Department. Citing the recently enacted Military Commissions Act of 2006, government lawyers last fall said the law had stripped the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear Marri's case.

As a noncitizen who had been designated an enemy combatant, Marri had no right to test the legality of his indefinite detention through the usual habeas corpus process even though he was in the US under a valid student visa at the time of his arrest.

Legal scholars had highlighted the dire implications of the government's position. "Such a statutory construction would create an unprecedented and unconstitutional distinction between the rights of citizens and non-citizens and would permit the government to effectively 'disappear' non-citizens into legal black holes," wrote New York lawyer Paul Smith in a friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of the Center for National Security Studies.

In its 86-page decision released on Monday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with that basic argument, rejecting the Bush administration's broad assertion that the courts had been stripped of jurisdiction. All three judges on the panel agreed that the Military Commissions Act did not undercut Marri's constitutional right to the protections of habeas corpus. As a person present on US soil he is entitled to such protection, the court said.

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