WASHINGTON The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that foreign terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay have rights under the Constitution to challenge their detention in U.S. civilian courts.
The justices handed the Bush administration its third setback at the high court since 2004 over its treatment of prisoners who are being held indefinitely and without charges at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. The vote was 5-4, with the court's liberal justices in the majority.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court, said, "The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times."
It was not immediately clear whether this ruling, unlike the first two, would lead to prompt hearings for the detainees, some of whom have been held more than six years.
Roughly 270 men, including Canadian Omar Khadr, remain at the island prison, classified as enemy combatants and held on suspicion of terrorism or links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Mr. Khadr, 21, is charged with killing a U.S. Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan in July 2002.
Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday he had no immediate information whether a hearing for Mr. Khadr would go forward next week as planned. Mr. Khadr is one of 19 detainees so far facing the first U.S. war-crimes trials since the Second World War.
The administration opened the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to hold enemy combatants, people suspected of ties to al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
The Guantanamo prison has been harshly criticized at home and abroad for the detentions themselves and the aggressive interrogations that were conducted there.
The court said not only that the detainees have rights under the Constitution, but that the system the administration has put in place to classify them as enemy combatants and review those decisions is inadequate.
The administration had argued first that the detainees have no rights. But it also contended that the classification and review process was a sufficient substitute for the civilian court hearings that the detainees seek.
In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts criticized his colleagues for striking down what he called "the most generous set of procedural protections ever afforded aliens detained by this country as enemy combatants."
Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also dissented.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens joined Kennedy to form the majority.
The court has ruled twice previously that people held at Guantanamo without charges can go into civilian courts to ask that the government justify their continued detention. Each time, the administration and Congress, then controlled by Republicans, changed the law to try to close the courthouse doors to the detainees.
In addition to those held without charges, the U.S. has said it plans to try as many as 80 of the detainees in war crimes tribunals, which have not been held since the Second World War.
A military judge has postponed the first scheduled trial pending the outcome of this case. The trial of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's onetime driver, had been scheduled to start June 2.
Five alleged plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks appeared in a Guantanamo courtroom last week for a hearing before their war crimes trial, which prosecutors hope will start Sept. 15.