Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Detainees' Future May Hinge on Cuba Lease ; Is Guantanamo Bay US Property or Not? the Answer Could Affect the Handling of Taliban Prisoners

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Detainees' Future May Hinge on Cuba Lease ; Is Guantanamo Bay US Property or Not? the Answer Could Affect the Handling of Taliban Prisoners

Article excerpt

At the height of the cold war, US forces maintained a hair- trigger alert along a 17-mile fence line to defend the soil of this military base against communist encroachment.

Now, at the height of a different kind of war, US government lawyers are arguing that Guantanamo isn't American at all, that it really belongs to Cuba.

It is more than just an esoteric debate about an open-ended 1903 lease agreement with Cuba establishing Guantanamo as a US coaling station. Rather, it goes to the heart of the Bush administration's effort to convert a portion of this dusty naval base into a terrorist penal colony beyond the reach of US laws and constitutional protections.

Simply put, the issue is whether the naval base is sovereign US territory or a mere piece of rental property with Fidel Castro as the current landlord.

The answer to that will either facilitate or greatly complicate US efforts to detain, question, prosecute - and perhaps execute - the 300 suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters being held indefinitely at a makeshift detention camp here.

"These people were brought to what we believe to be the territorial jurisdiction of the United States," says Joseph Margulies, a Minneapolis lawyer and Cornell University law professor, who has filed a lawsuit in Washington on behalf of two British men and an Australian being held here. "They are in Guantanamo because the United States brought them to Guantanamo."

What that means from a legal standpoint, Mr. Margulies says, is that the detainees are entitled to the protections and guarantees of the US Constitution - including the right not to be held indefinitely without due process of law.

In 1950, the US Supreme Court ruled that foreign nationals outside the sovereign territory of the US are not entitled to key constitutional protections.

So the essential question is whether Guantanamo is sovereign Cuban or sovereign US territory.

Lawyers for the US government say that the 1903 lease agreement addresses the legal status of the naval base with perfect clarity.

The lease reads in part: "While on the one hand the United States recognizes the continuance of the ultimate sovereignty of the Republic of Cuba ... on the other hand the Republic of Cuba consents that ... the United States shall exercise complete jurisdiction and control over and within said area."

Reading the language of the lease, a federal judge in Los Angeles on Feb. 21 dismissed one of the lawsuits filed on behalf of the Guantanamo detainees.

"There is a difference between territorial jurisdiction and sovereignty," writes US District Judge Howard Matz in his decision. "The court finds that Guantanamo Bay is NOT within the sovereign territory of the United States."

Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at the University of Southern California who argued the case before Judge Matz, says he is appealing the judge's decision. …

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