The court must decide whether to take up requests for a judgement on the matter filed by human rights organisations, diplomats, former judges and retired military officers.

The plaintiffs believe the court should intervene to declare that US President George Bush’s administration is denying justice to approximately 650 men from 42 countries, held prisoners by the United States in Cuba.

They believe that the Bush administration’s abuse of civil liberties under the pretext of the so-called “war on terrorism” will eventually affect all Americans.

The Centre for Constitutional Rights has unsuccessfully argued in federal court that the detainees have a right to a lawyer and to appear before a judge.

A series of cases have now been filed with the Supreme Court on behalf of 16 of the prisoners, including Kuwaitis, Australian and British nationals.

Vague response

Even if the nine justices of the Supreme Court decide to consider the matter, it is difficult to predict how they will respond.

One clue may be found in Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s 1998 book, All the Laws But One, advocating the limitation of civil liberties during wartime.

But earlier this year, one of his colleagues, Justice Stephen Breyer told lawyers: “The Constitution always matters, perhaps particularly so in times of emergency."

A ruling or silence from the Court “will be an important statement either way”, predicted lawyer Ira Robbins.

Detainees at Guantanamo are
"illegal combatants”, says US

“At least we will find out where the court stands and maybe they will make an important statement protecting civil liberties,” said Robbins, a Supreme Court expert.

In a recent editorial, the New York Times wrote that the Supreme Court “has a duty to step in and stand up for civil liberties”.

But the nation’s highest court may choose to remain silent, as it did during World War II, refusing to make a statement on the detention of Japanese and Japanese-Americans detained in prison camps in the United States.

Legal status

To date, federal courts have said that the Guantanamo detainees do not have the same legal rights as prisoners held in the United States, due to the legal status and location of the base.

The Bush administration says that the Guantanamo prisoners, most of them captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the 11 September 2001 attacks, are “illegal combatants”, not protected as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

The military enclave on the southeastern edge of Cuba was granted to the United States in a 1934 treaty.