One of Britain's most senior judges condemned the American courts last night for a "monstrous failure of justice" by refusing to rule on the claims of Taliban suspects held without trial at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Lord Steyn, a serving law lord, said the United States was acting illegally by holding the men without trial since their transfer from Afghanistan early last year.
By denying the prisoners the right to raise challenges in a court about their alleged status and treatment, the United States government is in breach of the minimum standards of customary international law.
"By denying the prisoners the right to raise challenges in a court about their alleged status and treatment, the United States government is in breach of the minimum standards of customary international law," he said.
Giving the annual F A Mann lecture arranged by the law firm Herbert Smith in London last night, Lord Steyn accused the world's most powerful democracy of "detaining hundreds of suspected foot soldiers of the Taliban in a legal black hole at the United States naval base at Guantanamo Bay, where they await trial on capital charges by military tribunals".
But these tribunals, or "commissions", were not independent courts, he said.
"The term 'kangaroo court' springs to mind. It derives from the jumps of the kangaroo, and conveys the idea of a pre-ordained arbitrary rush to judgment by an irregular tribunal which makes a mockery of justice.
"International military commissions at Guantanamo Bay will be so regarded. Trials of the type contemplated by the United States government would be a stain on United States justice. The only thing that could be worse is simply to leave the prisoners in their black hole indefinitely." Lord Steyn avoids political debates in the House of Lords, but he asked yesterday: "Ought our government to make plain publicly and unambiguously our condemnation of the utter lawlessness at Guantanamo Bay?"
The law lord left his audience in no doubt where his own feelings lay by quoting the famous meditation of John Donne, the 17th century poet and preacher: "No man is an island, entire of itself . . . Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."
Lord Steyn, 71, the third most senior law lord, said that under English law the writ of habeas corpus would protect citizens and foreigners. That was consistent with human rights law, which Lord Steyn concluded, the US had broken.
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