The Supreme Court agreed to hear its first case arising from the war on terrorism, an appeal asking whether foreigners held at the US Navy base in Cuba may contest their captivity in American courts.
The case concerns more than 650 prisoners held essentially incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay. The Bush administration maintains that because the men were picked up overseas on suspicion of terrorism and are being held on foreign land they may be detained indefinitely without charges or trial.
The men, mostly Muslims, have no access to lawyers or other outsiders, and do not even know they are the subject of the case the court agreed Monday to hear, according to lawyers who have taken up their cause.
Some among them may eventually be tried before military tribunals, but the administration has not said when. How the court rules could affect those plans.
The detentions are part of a global campaign against terrorism that has outraged civil liberties groups and left some US allies grumbling.
The administration has gained expanded powers to investigate and detain people suspected of terrorist links, has reorganized the way the government defends US borders and has increased security at airports and other ports of entry.
The Supreme Court passed up several earlier opportunities to hear terrorism cases.
In the Guantanamo case, the justices limited their review to the narrow but significant question of access to US courts. The case concerns only Guantanamo detainees, most of whom were picked up during the US war in Afghanistan, although the US holds prisoners in numerous other places overseas.
Reacting to Monday's decision, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said: "What the US Supreme Court is going to hear is the submission that Guantanamo Bay should be within American jurisdiction for legal purposes."
"Cases have been brought to lower courts in the United States and those courts have thrown out those cases," he told Australian television's Nine Network. "We'll have to just wait and see what the Supreme Court decides."
Several US allies have complained about the open-ended detentions, and at least 40 prisoners have been returned to their home countries. Last month, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the mental health of a large number of inmates was deteriorating.
"We've been saying to the Americans, as far as the Australians are concerned, we'd accept them being taken before a military commission, provided that the military commission meets the basic principles of justice that are acceptable to us in Australia," Downer said. "It would be better that they were taken before a military commission rather than just left in limbo."
Among the detainees named in the appeal is Australian David Hicks, 28, who has been held for more than two years at Guantanamo after being captured fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan in December 2001.
Hicks will be among the first six Guantanamo Bay detainees to face a hearing by a US military commission, a date for which is still to be announced.
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