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U.S. Appeals Court Overturns Conviction Of Guantanamo Detainee

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A court's decision today invalidates one of the very few convictions that a war court has obtained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The ruling throws into question how many more of the captives held there can be tried. As NPR's David Welna reports, a federal appeals court panel threw out the conviction of a Yemeni man.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It took three different military commissions to impose a life sentence on Ali Hamza al Bahlul seven years ago for making a recruiting video for al-Qaeda that featured some of the 9/11 hijackers. It took two out of the three judges on the District of Columbia's Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn that conviction. The majority ruled that the military commission that tried al Bahlul had no business convicting him for conspiracy since that's not a crime under the international law of war. What's more, the panel said the military commissions created by the last Bush administration violated the constitutional separation of powers when they tried detainees charged with such domestic crimes.

STEPHEN VLADECK: The real significance of today's ruling is what it means for the commissions going forward.

WELNA: That's American University law professor Stephen Vladek. He says seven of the eight convictions that military commissions have made in Guantanamo may now be overturned.

VLADECK: If today's decision is left intact, we'll have a multimillion dollar project that has extended tens-of-thousands of man hours and that has secured exactly one conviction that is not vulnerable to constitutional challenge.

WELNA: Meanwhile, five alleged 9/11 conspirators are facing a military commission. Today's ruling will likely have no effect on their case because they're charged with clear law of war violations. But Vladeck doubts few of the dozen-or-so other Guantanamo captives set to be tried by the military commission war court would now qualify for prosecution. They and others likely could be tried for domestic crimes by federal civilian courts, but Congress has blocked their entry to the U.S. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.