US top court dismisses al-Qaeda case
The US Supreme Court refused to weigh in Friday on whether US presidents have the authority to indefinitely detain a terrorist suspect in the United States without charges.
But it sent the issue back for a new hearing before the federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, which ruled in July that former president George W. Bush had that power in the case of Ali al-Marri, an alleged al-Qaeda sleeper agent.
The high court's action effectively delayed resolution of an issue that, while different, could have implications for the estimated 245 "enemy combatants" still being held by the United States in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
It left Marri's lawyers with an avenue to press their challenge to the constitutionality of indefinite detentions on US soil in terrorism cases, while also buying time for the new administration of President Barack Obama, which had asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the case.
The appeals court in Richmond scheduled a session April 27 to hear arguments in the case.
Unlike the Guantanamo detainees, Marri, a dual Qatari-Saudi national, was a US resident studying at a university in Illinois when he was first arrested in 2001 on credit card fraud charges.
Former president George W. Bush declared him an "enemy combatant" in 2003 and he was transferred to a US naval brig in South Carolina, where he was held without charges.
But in a change last week, the Justice Department formally charged Marri in a federal court with providing support to al-Qaeda, and asked the Supreme Court to set aside as "moot" the constitutional challenge to his detention as an enemy combatant.
The Supreme Court on Friday approved Marri's transfer to a federal prison.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the case, said it would have preferred a ruling "that US citizens and lawful residents detained in the US cannot be held in military custody as 'enemy combatants' without charges or trial."
But the rights group noted "the Supreme Court nonetheless took an important step today by vacating a lower court decision that had upheld the Bush administration's authority to designate Marri as an 'enemy combatant.'"
In a statement, defence lawyer Jonathan Hafetz said Marri's indictment was "an important step towards restoring the rule of law," but said his case was not moot.
"The government has still not renounced the legal authority that led to Mr al-Marri's detention in military custody for more than six years without charge or trial," he said.
"The court should make clear that there is no legal authority for the president to deprive individuals living in the United States of their most basic constitutional rights by declaring them 'enemy combatants,'" he said.
The Supreme Court has taken up the question of "enemy combatants" three times, and three times delivered setbacks to the government.
In 2004, it gave them the right to legal counsel; in 2006, it outlawed military commissions set up by the president to try them (they were re-established by Congress three months later); and in 2006, it gave them access to US civilian courts.
The Marri case comes against the backdrop of Obama's order in January to close the US "war-on-terror" prison in Guantanamo, Cuba within a year, which has raised questions about the fate of some 245 "enemy combatants" detained there.
US officials have said some detainees are too dangerous to free in the United States under any circumstance.
Rights organisations have called on European Union members to accept some 60 Guantanamo detainees, but the block is divided with some European politicians suggesting Guantanamo is Washington's problem to solve.