By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007
The Bush administration is urging a federal appeals court to clamp down on Guantanamo Bay prisoners' ability to see their attorneys and obtain government records to help argue their innocence.
As the legal battle over the detentions moves to a new arena, the Justice Department is trying to tightly restrict the tactics that a persistent and largely volunteer group of defense lawyers can use to challenge the government's basis for holding their clients.
In recent court filings, the Justice Department argues that defense lawyers' visits to the prisoners "cause unrest on the base," including hunger strikes and protests, and are often a pretext for obtaining accounts from the detainees to relay to the media.
The effort to restrict detainees' access to lawyers and documents comes as the fight over their fate moves out of a federal trial court -- which was often at odds with the administration's assertion that it could hold them indefinitely without charges -- to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which generally has been more supportive of the president's claim of broad powers in fighting terrorism.
In filings to the appellate court in recent weeks, the Justice Department argued that detainees should be allowed three visits with their attorneys, instead of an unlimited number. The government said more visits are unnecessary because the clients' testimony and views are not needed for the kind of limited appellate-court review now allowed by the law.
The Justice Department also argued that the U.S. Court of Appeals should not consider new evidence or information in reviewing Pentagon decisions about continued detention. The court should take into account only the facts that a military combatant status review tribunal considered in determining that each detainee should be held, the government argued.
The government has rejected attorneys' demands for other records, saying the government will determine which records are relevant.
"We've brought suit to prove our client is innocent. And the government says it gets to decide what is relevant to those facts," attorney Susan Baker Manning said. "It is absolutely, utterly at odds with everything in our legal system."
Many of the approximately 380 foreign nationals at the U.S. Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been imprisoned for years. The president declared the men enemy combatants, saying they were either terrorism suspects or had links to terrorist groups.
Defense attorneys, who were first able to interview their clients at Guantanamo in 2004, began compiling evidence that some detainees were kidnapped by local bounty hunters or were seized by U.S. troops by mistake. Such accounts were a source of embarrassment for the administration.
But under a law approved in 2005, detainees' attorneys now must seek to prove their clients' innocence in the appeals court. The law, crafted by the White House and approved by Congress when Republicans controlled both chambers, denies detainees the right to challenge their detentions in trial courts and requires them to petition the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to review Pentagon decisions to hold them.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.