Court cites press, humanitarian concerns in “combatant” ruling

New York, June 29, 2004—In a case with ramifications for journalists working in conflict areas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that Yaser Esam Hamdi, an American citizen detained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001, must be allowed to challenge his detention in a court of law.

The government argued Hamdi was fighting with the Taliban, and a lower court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, found the military had the right to hold him indefinitely as an “enemy combatant.”

Humanitarian and press freedom groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, cited the risks of such a ruling in an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief submitted to the Supreme Court. The organizations noted that journalists and relief workers frequently operate in conflict zones and, at times, are mistakenly detained by armed forces.

The brief expressed grave concern about the lower court ruling that individuals detained by the U.S. military as “enemy combatants” in war zones had no right to a status determination by a competent tribunal under the Geneva Convention, or to a judicial review under U.S. law.

The Supreme Court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, cited the amicus brief. “Indeed, as amicus briefs from media and relief organizations emphasize, the risk of erroneous deprivation of a citizen’s liberty in the absence of sufficient process here is very real,” she wrote.

The brief was prepared by the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and coordinated by Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights).

Click here to read a copy of the brief.