Santeria animal sacrifice case underpins Guantanamo legal challenge

April 19, 2012

(A rooster held by Miami's Little Havana resident Jorge Manaricua (L) waits to be sacrificed as Santeria high priest (babalao) Eduardo Rodriquez (R) drains the blood of a hen on to representations of the god, Ochun August 3, 2000. REUTERS/Colin Braley)

A pending challenge to the jurisdiction of the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals relies in part on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the right of Santeria priests in Florida to sacrifice chickens during religious ceremonies.

The ruling was easily the most unusual cited last week in pretrial hearings for Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, a Saudi prisoner who could face the death penalty if convicted of orchestrating a suicide bomb attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors aboard the warship USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden.

It was part of a larger defense argument that the U.S. military tribunals at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba violate the Constitutional guarantee to equal protection under the law because only non-U.S. citizens can be tried in the tribunals.

“Mr. Nashiri has been brought before this military tribunal under an act of Congress that says he uniquely will be deprived of his life in a way that someone who simply by the accident of where they were born as a citizen of the United States who could have done identical conduct would not be,” defense attorney Michel Paradis argued.

He urged the judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, to consider the precedent set by the Florida case, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye versus City of Hialeah. Church members practice Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion whose followers mark important occasions by sacrificing chickens, goats and other animals, putting the blood in clay pots and usually eating the meat.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down City of Hialeah ordinances that banned animal sacrifices while allowing commercial slaughterhouses, kosher butchers and sport fishermen to kill animals.

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