Senate Committee Approves Bill for Detainee Hearings

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved a bill that would give detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts, part of a renewed effort by the Democratic-controlled Congress to challenge the Bush administration on its wartime policies.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) joined all 10 Democrats on the committee in approving the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act, which aims to counteract a law passed hastily in October that stripped detainees of their ability to bring their cases to court under the centuries-old legal principle of habeas corpus.

The Republican majority passed the Military Commissions Act in October over strong objections that it was unconstitutional and that it inappropriately allowed the government to hold detainees at Guantanamo indefinitely without court challenge.

The bill will head to the Senate floor as part of the Defense Authorization Bill. That legislation also includes measures to dramatically change military tribunals and military courts designed to deal with "enemy combatants" captured in the Bush administration's anti-terrorism campaign.

Though voting was largely split on partisan lines, yesterday's passage of the bill is among the first bold rebukes of the administration's detention policies by a Congress that vowed to make changes when elected in November. Habeas corpus, one of the bedrock elements of U.S. law, has long been a target for lawmakers who feel its suspension was a dramatic move toward abridging basic freedoms.

"We must make clear that our laws do not permit the government to detain people, including people on U.S. soil, indefinitely without court review," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). "This bill is an important first step in reasserting the primacy of American values in our law."

Although there was no debate of the bill yesterday, many Republican lawmakers have praised existing law because it provides for court review of a detainee's enemy combatant status and because they maintain that foreign nationals held at Guantanamo should not have the same rights as U.S. citizens. U.S. officials have opposed giving habeas corpus rights to detainees, and the new bills to alter the legal systems at Guantanamo could meet similar resistance from the Bush administration.

Democratic efforts gained steam this week when two U.S. military judges at Guantanamo threw out charges of war crimes against two detainees because of the way the Military Commissions Act is written. They ruled that the law requires detainees to be "unlawful enemy combatants" to go to trial. Detainees there are currently designated "enemy combatants."

Critics of the law cited the error as evidence that the legal system is a failure; supporters called it a technicality.

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