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U.S. resists rights at Bagram

The Justice Department, saying top officials have authorized a swift appeal, asked a federal District Court judge on Friday to put on hold a ruling that would extend some constitutional rights to detainees being held by the U.S. military at Bagram air base in Afghanistan.

At stake, the Department said in a new filing in U.S. District Court, is whether the constitutional right to challenge detention should be extended “for the first time to a theater of war on foreign territory over which the United States exercises neither de jure nor de facto sovereignty.”  The Department insisted that the Bagram detention site was not being used just to put prisoners beyond the reach of U.S. courts.

It sought an order by District Judge John D. Bates to certify the issue to the D.C. Circuit Court even though the Bagram detainees’ case is still in a pre-trial stage.  “If the Court of Appeals determines that these [detainees] cannot invoke the constitutional privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, then this Court would have no jurisdiction to proceed and litgation of these habeas cases will end,” the filing said.

The Department also asked Judge Bates to stay his ruling while the appeal goes forward, stopping all proceedings in his Court.  It said that U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan authorized the plea “to seek an expedited appeal.”

“If this Court were to proceed with these cases during the pendency of the appeal,” the motion argued, “the Court would impose serious practical burdens on, and potential harm to, the Government and its efforts to prosecute the war in Afghanistan.”

The document brought the first full statement from the Obama Administration on its views about detainees in a U.S. military prison at the air base outside Kabul.  Previously, the Administration had simply told Judge Bates, without elaboration, that it would follow the Bush Administration view that the Bagram prisoners have no rights to assert in U.S. courts.

White House officials also had said, when President Obama took office, that they did not expect to make any decisions about the Bagram prison for perhaps six months.  The future of Bagram detainees is one of the issues now being reviewed by a task force studying detainee policy worldwide.

In Judge Bates’ ruling on April 2 (see this post), he concluded that the Supreme Court’s decision last June in Boumediene v. Bush involving rights for detainees at Guantanamo Bay laid down a legal framework that should be applied to Bagram, too, and perhaps other sites around the world where the U.S. military has significant control.

The judge had found that the government would not be faced with major difficulties if the habeas pleas of three Bagram detainees went forward in court.   The Justice Department disagreed in its filing on Friday.

Responding in court to these three cases, “and to the potentially large number of other petitions filed by Bagram detainees who may now allege that they are similarly situated,” the Department argued, “would divert the military’s attention and resources at a critical time for operations in Afghanistan, potentially requiring accomodation and protection of counsel and onerous discovery.”

Judge Bates had limited his ruling to just three Bagram detainees, saying they were not nationals of Afghanistan and had been captured elsewhere and simply transferred to Bagram for detention.  Bagram, however, holds somewhere around 600 detainees; it is unknown how many of them would fit in the category covered by Bates’ decision; the judge himself said it would apply to only a limited number there.

The standard for allowing a pre-trial appeal to go ahead in federal courts is whether the dispute involves a “controlling question of law” about which there is substantial disagreement, and whether such an immediate appeal would help toward a final ruling of the controversy.

The Department contended that the issue of the Bagram detainees’ rights meets that standard.  The question of the District Court’s jurisdiction over Bagram prisioners, it said, is a controlling legal issue.

It also argued that the Bagram situation is very different from that previaling at Guantanamo leading to the Supreme Court’s Boumediene decision.   It also contended that it is not clear that the place where a detainee was captured has anything to do with the legality of detention.

Opinions also diverge, the Department contended, on whether Judge Bates’ ruling “encroaches on military judgments about where to detain an individual captured during an ongoing war.”   There are “many legitimate reasons, having nothing to do” with trying to manipulate courts’ powers over detainees, on why the military chooses a particular site for holding a particular prisoner.

The document described a series of possible inhibitions of military choices about capturing and detaining individuals in wartime situations.  Among them was a complaint that extending habeas to Bagram might keep the military from sending to Bagram individuals captured in Pakistan, whether the military does not have facilities for screening or detaining prisoners.

In asking permission for a swift appeal and for a stay of District Court proceedings, the Department said the Bagram detainees’ lawyers had said they would oppose the requests.