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Justices to rule on rights of foreigners arrested in US

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court said yesterday that it would decide whether US courts can enforce the rights of foreigners to contact their consulate when they are accused of a crime in this country.

In cases from Oregon and Virginia, the justices also said they would decide whether failure to notify foreign nationals of their rights under the Vienna Convention must result in the suppression of their statements to the police.

Under the convention, which the United States ratified in 1969, US officials must tell foreign nationals of their right to contact their consulates after their arrest and must notify the consulate of the arrest. Americans are entitled to the same rights in countries that signed the treaty.

The Supreme Court returned to an issue it last considered during its 2004-'05 term, which ended in June.

The high court dismissed the case of a Mexican on death row in May, after President Bush said the defendant and 50 other inmates should get new hearings because they weren't told of their right to talk to Mexican officials. The court declined to decide the merits of the dispute involving Jose Medellin, who is on death row in Texas. He was denied the right to meet a consular officer from Mexico after his arrest on murder charges.

On Feb. 28, Bush complied with a World Court decision and said state courts should review the 51 cases to determine whether the violation of their rights caused them any harm at trial or at sentencing.

In the cases from Virginia and Oregon, the justices will decide whether the convention conveyed individual rights of consular notification and access that US courts can enforce. State courts had ruled against the foreign nationals in both cases.

The Oregon case involved Moises Sanchez-Llamas, a Mexican national who was arrested in 1999 after he shot at police and wounded an officer. After his arrest, the police told him of his right to remain silent and to have an attorney present, but he was not told that he could communicate with the Mexican consulate. The consulate also was not told of his arrest.

He was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 20 1/2 years in prison. The Oregon Supreme Court upheld his conviction and concluded the Vienna Convention does not create rights that individual foreign nationals may assert in a criminal proceeding.

In the Virginia case, Mario Bustillo is serving a 30-year prison sentence for the 1997 murder of 18-year-old James Merry outside a Popeye's fast-food restaurant. Bustillo, a Honduran national, was never told of his right to seek legal help from the Honduran consulate. His attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court. They asked the justices to decide whether state courts may refuse to consider violations of the treaty because of procedural problems or because the treaty does not create individually enforceable rights.

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