THE US COURT of Appeals in Richmond, Va., took a slice out of the Bill of Rights Wednesday when it ruled that US citizens accused of being enemy combatants can be denied the basic right to challenge that designation and can be locked up indefinitely.
In its ruling the court even denied a lawyer hired by Yaser Esam Hamdi's father the right to inspect the government's evidence that Hamdi is the Taliban fighter the military claims him to be.
That makes clear just how thoroughly the Appeals Court has eviscerated the due process rights that the Constitution grants to US citizens. Hamdi was born in Louisiana to Saudi parents. The Bush administration's war against terrorism is open-ended in duration, so Hamdi could remain incommunicado in a Virginia brig for years without the right even to challenge the two-page Pentagon statement that identifies him as an enemy combatant.
In the administration's view, a citizen held as an enemy combatant can be detained without charges or judicial review and has no right to bail or a lawyer. In this status, Hamdi has fewer rights than ordinary criminals or foreigners facing the military tribunals the administration has proposed to use. Both Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, and Zacarias Moussaoui, whom authorities have called the ''20th hijacker,'' enjoy more rights than Hamdi, and neither is a US citizen.
The decision Wednesday overturned a ruling last August by US District Judge Robert Doumar of Virginia, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan. Doumar, sensibly, had sought more detailed information from the government on why it calls Hamdi an enemy combatant. The judge wrote that he needed to see the statements Hamdi made to his interrogators, the ''screening material'' used by the military to determine his status, and the names and addresses of those in the military who made the determination.
Both the executive branch and the judiciary are still feeling their way in the strange new world of an undeclared war that is being fought all over the globe, from the Philippines to Hamburg to Chicago. So far three US citizens - Hamdi, John Walker Lindh, and Jose Padilla, the so-called ''dirty bomb'' suspect - have been accused of siding with the enemy. More are likely to be, but not so many that there is any logistical reason, as the Appeals Court suggested, to let the military detain Americans indefinitely on its say-so without judicial review.
Many civil rights organizations, a coalition of law professors, and a task force of the American Bar Association have all said citizens should not be stripped of their constitutional rights as Hamdi has been. When his case comes to the US Supreme Court, it should reach the same conclusion.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company