The group filed seven “friend-of-the-court” briefs attacking the legality of the US treatment of prisoners at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere under the US Constitution, the Geneva Conventions and international law.
“The idea that American executive branch personnel, particularly military personnel, can detain people beyond the reach of habeas corpus is just repugnant to the rule of law,” John Gibbons, former chief judge of the federal appeals court in Philadelphia, told Reuters.
The military is holding some 660 terrorism suspects from 42 countries at its base in Cuba. No charges have been brought against them but though the government has identified a handful it considers eligible to face military tribunals.
“For all intents and purposes these folks are condemned to a long time on Guantanamo Bay in the prison camps with not even an opportunity to have their issues aired, their situation reviewed by a tribunal"
US retired rear admiral
The United States says the detainees are "enemy combatants" but not prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. It reserves the right to try them before military tribunals but has not yet brought any to trial.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan on Friday repeated the US position that it treats the detainees consistently with the requirements of the conventions. "They are enemy combatants. We are at war on terrorism," he added.
The first detainees, seized during the US-led war against Usama bin-Ladin, al-Qaida and its Taliban protectors in Afghanistan, arrived at Guantanamo in January 2002.
Retired Rear Admiral Donald Guter, who was judge advocate general for the US Navy from 2000-2002, said the war on terrorism should not be used as an excuse to disregard the rule of law.
“For all intents and purposes these folks are condemned to a long time on Guantanamo Bay in the prison camps with not even an opportunity to have their issues aired, their situation reviewed by a tribunal," said Guter, according to Reuters.
William Rogers, a former assistant secretary of state who joined a group of diplomats filing a brief, said US policy on the detainees was having a devastating impact on foreign policy.
Once regarded as a model for human rights, he said the United States was seen by many as the “bully on the block”.
Red Cross weighs in
The International Red Cross also expressed dismay on Friday at the continued legal limbo of the Guantanamo detainees
"The main concern for us is the US authorities ... have effectively placed them beyond the law," said Amanda Williamson, spokeswoman in the Washington office of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross.
"They have been placed in a legal vacuum, a legal black hole. This, for the ICRC, is unacceptable"
International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman
"After more than 18 months of captivity, the internees have no idea about their fate, no means of recourse through any legal mechanism. They have been placed in a legal vacuum, a legal black hole. This, for the ICRC, is unacceptable," Williamson told Reuters.
The Red Cross, which has an international mandate to monitor compliance with the Geneva Conventions and visit people detained in conflicts, has repeatedly expressed its concerns about aspects of the detention camp at Guantanamo, which was deliberately chosen because of its legal ambiguity.
But it usually couches any criticism in careful language because its priority is to retain access to the detainees and to work behind the scenes for improvements.