WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of senators reached a compromise Monday that would allow detainees at Guantanamo Bay to appeal the rulings of military tribunals to the federal courts.
Under the agreement, detainees who receive a punishment of 10 years in prison to death would receive an automatic appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Lesser sentences would not receive automatic review, but detainees still could petition the court to hear their cases.
In addition, the 500 or so detainees at the U.S. naval base in Cuba would be allowed to challenge in federal court the procedure under which they were labeled "enemy combatants."
The compromise proposal allows the federal court reviews in place of the one tool the Supreme Court gave detainees in 2004 to fight the legality of their detentions _ the right to file habeas corpus petitions in federal courts.
"Instead of unlimited lawsuits, the courts now will be looking at whether you're properly determined to be an enemy combatant and, if you're tried, whether or not your conviction followed the military commission procedures in place," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in an interview. He said courts also will determine the constitutionality of the Bush administration's processes for prosecuting terror suspects and determining whether they should continue to be detained.
The Senate will vote on the compromise provision Tuesday. Approval would mean the Senate endorses the Bush administration's military tribunals for prosecuting suspected foreign terrorists at Guantanamo. The Supreme Court agreed last week to review a constitutional challenge to those tribunals.
Graham sponsored the original provision the Senate added Thursday to a defense bill on a 49-42 vote. It simply barred suspects from filing habeas corpus petitions used to fight unlawful detentions, a vote that came in response to last year's Supreme Court decision granting detainees such rights.
Human-rights groups, many Democrats and four Republicans opposed the original provision, saying it was flawed because it only allowed one very narrow appeal of a detainee's status as an "enemy combatant" to a federal court.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., called the compromise "a significant improvement" because it provides a much-needed automatic review by a federal court in death penalty cases. Also, Levin said, "We have said that the standards in the amendment will be applied in pending cases, but the amendment will not strip courts of jurisdiction over those cases."
Since that vote, Graham has worked with Levin and others to reach a compromise that would alleviate the concerns of senators of both parties and avert a showdown over the original provision.
The Senate is to vote Tuesday on a proposal by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., that would allow detainees to file habeas corpus petitions, but only in the D.C. appeals court. However, the proposal would prohibit detainees from filing petitions based on claims objecting to living conditions.
"It is reasonable to insist that when the government deprives a person of his or her liberty _ and in this case for an indefinite period of time _ that the individual have a meaningful opportunity to challenge the legality of their detention and challenge whether they are being wrongfully detained," Bingaman said.
Levin said he would vote for Bingaman's proposal but, should that fail, would support the compromise provision.
Graham said he opposed Bingaman's proposal because it did not correct "lawsuit abuse" by prisoners at Guantanamo, and, he said, it would continue to treat terrorism suspects as criminals by affording them the right to file habeas corpus petitions to fight their detentions in a U.S. court.
The Supreme Court gave that right to the 500 or so prisoners held at Guantanamo in 2004. Many of the prisoners were captured in Afghanistan and have been held at Guantanamo for several years without being charged.
Since that ruling, prisoner habeas corpus claims against the government have piled up.