January 21, 2002

Judge to Hear Petition on Al Qaeda Detainees

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -- A federal judge in Los Angeles has agreed to hear a petition from civil rights advocates demanding that the U.S. government clarify the situation of terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

U.S. District Court Judge A. Howard Matz scheduled a hearing for Tuesday on the petition, the first court challenge to the U.S. government's detention of al Qaeda suspects in Cuba, the Los Angeles Times reported.

``These individuals were brought out of their country in shackles, drugged, gagged and blindfolded, and are being held in open-air cages in Cuba,'' University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, one of the sponsors of the petition, told the newspaper.

``Someone should be asserting their rights under international law.''

Neither Chemerinsky nor the lawyer who filed the petition, well-known Los Angeles civil rights attorney Stephen Yagman, could be reached for comment Monday, a holiday.

The petition comes amid mounting international outcry over the Guantanamo detainees, who have been shown in photographs wearing black-out goggles, ear muffs and surgical face masks and kneeling in open air cages.

The United States has not classified the captives as prisoners of war, a label which carries specific rights under the Geneva Convention. Both the International Committee of the Red Cross and United Nations human rights chief Mary Robinson have said they consider them to be war captives.

The Times said the petition would test a number of legal issues, including the question of whether a U.S. District Court, which ordinarily is restricted to a geographical area, has jurisdiction over prisoners held on Cuban territory leased to the U.S. government.

Judge Matz will also have to determine whether the petitioners -- all from Los Angeles -- have the legal standing to pursue the case.

The petition for a writ of habeas corpus was delivered to the court Saturday evening on behalf of approximately 110 al Qaeda suspects taken into custody in Afghanistan and transferred to the U.S. Navy base in Cuba.

It alleges that the detainees are being held in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Geneva Convention, and asks U.S. authorities to produce the prisoners in a U.S. court, explain the reasons for their detention, and accord them due-process guarantees.

It also seeks to block any transfer of the detainees from the U.S. base in Cuba.

Yagman, the attorney who filed the petition, said he believed that the California court should have jurisdiction over the case and the U.S. government should be forced to explain its position publicly.

``The important thing is this will force them to say something,'' he told the Times.

Copyright 2002. Reuters. All rights reserved.

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