New York Times: Justice Department to Restrict Attorney Access to Guantanamo Inmates

Even as scandal continues to swirl around Alberto Gonzales and his cronies, the Department of Justice is pushing forward with an aggressive, highly controversial agenda to limit the rights of Guantanamo detainees. The New York Times reported today that the DOJ has filed a petition with a federal appeals court seeking to limit the number of contacts between defense attorneys and Guantanamo inmates. In addition, the filing also seeks to restrict access by defense attorneys to secret evidence that is being used against the detainees.

According to the Times, the DOJ petition makes the claim, “There is no right on the part of counsel to [have] access to detained aliens on a secure military base in a foreign country.” “Under the proposal, filed this month in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit,” says the paper, “the government would limit lawyers to three visits with an existing client at Guantánamo; there is now no limit. It would permit only a single visit with a detainee to have him authorize a lawyer to handle his case. And it would permit a team of intelligence officers and military lawyers not involved in a detainee’s case to read mail sent to him by his lawyer.”

Perhaps most troubling, the proposal would allow “government officials, on their own, to deny the lawyers access to secret evidence used by military panels to determine that their clients were enemy combatants.” In short, the Bush Administration is attempting to eliminate all of the legal rights that had been bestowed on the Guantanamo inmates by the courts in recent years. The DOJ claims that attorney contacts are currently considered “threats to security” and that they “cause unrest on the base.”

However, defense attorneys are livid, saying that the government merely wants to obstruct the lawyers from doing their jobs. As evidence, they point to comments made earlier this year by a Pentagon official who publicly suggested that businesses shy away from any lawyers or law firms who have defended Guantanamo inmates. (That official was forced to resign after those comments.)

Already, Guantanamo detainees have been denied the right of habeas corpus by last year’s Republican-controlled Congress, a decision that was upheld by an appeals court and basically ignored by the Supreme Court. What’s most amazing about the legal scuffle is that there are fewer than 400 detainees currently being held at the base. If there are indeed dangerous terrorists being held there, what is preventing the government from prosecuting these cases in a timely and reasonable manner? If the evidence is so compelling against the inmates, why must it be withheld from them and their attorneys?

Emboldened Democrats, meanwhile, are seeking to address the legal issues related to Guantanamo. Today, two Democratic senators criticized the entire military tribunal system at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told the committee that it was “unconstitutional” and “un-American” for terror suspects to be held indefinitely without being charged, much less convicted. Added Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, “America at its best is a beacon for human rights and human liberty, and that’s how we like to see ourselves. But much of the world sees us in a very different way when we fail to live up to the standards we profess.” Levin pointed to the denial of habeas corpus rights, which prevents this kind of indefinite detention, as unacceptable.

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