WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate voted on Wednesday against considering a measure to give Guantanamo detainees and other foreigners the right to challenge their detention in the U.S. courts.
The legislation needed 60 votes to be considered by lawmakers in the Senate, narrowly controlled by Democrats; it received only 56, with 43 voting against the effort to roll back a key element of President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism.
The measure would have granted foreign terrorism suspects the right of habeas corpus, Latin for “you have the body,” which prevents the government from locking people up without review by a court.
Congress last year eliminated this right for non-U.S. citizens labeled “enemy combatants” by the government. The Bush administration said this was necessary to prevent them from being set free and attacking Americans.
The move affected about 340 suspected al Qaeda and Taliban captives held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. It also affects millions of permanent legal residents of the United States who are not U.S. citizens, said one of the sponsors of the bipartisan measure, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
“Any of these people could be detained forever without the ability to challenge their detention in federal court” under the changes in law Congress made last year, Leahy said on the Senate floor. This was true “even if they (authorities) made a mistake and picked up the wrong person.”
“This was a mistake the last Congress and the (Bush) administration made, based on fear,” Leahy said.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican opposing the measure, said lawmakers should not allow “some of the most brutal vicious people in the world to bring lawsuits against their own (U.S.) troops” who had picked up the detainees on the battlefield.
Giving habeas corpus to Guantanamo detainees would “really intrude into the military’s ability to manage this war,” Graham said, adding that it was “something that has never been granted to any other prisoner in any other war.”
“Our judges don’t have the military background to make decisions as to who the enemy is,” Graham told the Senate.
Congress eliminated habeas rights as part of the Military Commissions Act, which also created new military tribunals to try the Guantanamo prisoners on war crimes charges.
Congress was led by Republicans when the act was rushed through, shortly before new elections put Democrats in control.
Sen. Arlen Specter, another sponsor of the bill and a Pennsylvania Republican, noted that the right to habeas corpus was a protection against arbitrary arrest enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and dating back to the English Magna Carta of 1215.
Later this year, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments from lawyers from Guantanamo prisoners challenging the law to eliminate the habeas right.