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Judge Rules Guantanamo Military Commissions Are Unconstitutional

By Neil A. Lewis

The New York Times -- GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba

A federal judge ruled Monday that President Bush had both overstepped his constitutional bounds and improperly brushed aside the Geneva Conventions in establishing military commissions to try detainees at the U.S. naval base here as war criminals.

The ruling by Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court in Washington brought an abrupt halt to the trial of one detainee, one of hundreds being held here as enemy combatants, and threw into doubt the future of the first set of U.S. military commission trials since the end of World War II.

The administration reacted quickly, saying it would seek an emergency stay and a quick appeal.

Robertson ruled against the government in the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan who is facing terrorism charges. Hamdan’s lawyers had asked the court to declare the military commission process fatally flawed.

The ruling and its timing had a theatrical effect on the courtroom here where pretrial proceedings were under way with Hamdan, a 34-year-old Yemeni in a flowing white robe, seated next to his lawyers. About 30 minutes into the afternoon proceedings, the presiding officer, Col. Peter S. Brownback III, was handed a note from a Marine sergeant. Brownback immediately called a recess and rushed from the room with the commission’s two other officers. When he returned, he announced that the proceeding was in recess indefinitely and he departed quickly.

Neal Katyal, a Georgetown Law School professor who is one of Hamdan’s lawyers and who supervised the federal court lawsuit, told the puzzled courtroom audience, “We won.”

Robertson ruled that the administration could not under current circumstances try Hamdan before the military commissions set up shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but could only bring him before a court-martial, where different rules of evidence apply.