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Senate moves to restore detainee rights

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Guantanamo prisoners and other foreigners got a step closer to regaining the right to challenge their detention in the U.S. courts in a bill approved in a U.S. Senate committee on Thursday.

A courtroom sketch reviewed and cleared for release by U.S. military officials shows Guantanamo detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan (L) flanked by his legal team during a U.S. Military Tribunal arraignment at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, June 4, 2007. REUTERS/Janet Hamlin/Pool

The Judiciary Committee voted 11-8 to send the proposal to the full Senate for debate, with Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania the lone Republican joining the Democratic majority.

Congress last year revoked the rights of foreign terrorism suspects labeled “enemy combatants” to challenge their detention by the United States. The Bush administration said it was necessary to prevent them from attacking Americans if freed.

The move affected about 380 suspected al Qaeda and Taliban captives held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. It could also affect 12 million legal residents of the United States who are not U.S. citizens, said the committee chairman, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

“I hope the Senate will reconsider the historic error in judgment,” Leahy said.

The proposal would restore the right of habeas corpus, Latin for “have the body,” which has been the foundation of Anglo-American justice. It prevents the government from locking people up without review by a court.

Leahy said the bill removing that right violated the U.S. constitution, ignored centuries of legal practice and conflicted with U.S. calls for other nations to respect human rights.

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“I implore those who supported this change to think about whether eliminating habeas truly makes America safer in the world, and whether it comports with the values, liberties ad legal traditions we hold most dear,” he said.

“It makes us less safe.”


The removal of habeas rights was 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 it was rushed through, shortly before elections that put Democrats in control.

There was no opposition expressed at Thursday’s committee meeting. But aides said that should not be construed as a sign of support from several Republicans who missed the meeting to take part in an important debate on immigration reform.

The Military Commissions Act was criticized on Monday when judges in the Guantanamo tribunals dropped all war crimes charges against the only two prisoners facing trial.

The judges said they lacked jurisdiction because the defendants had been classified as “enemy combatants” rather than “unlawful enemy combatants,” as required by the Military Commissions Act.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the move to restore habeas corpus a good first step and urged Congress to go further and scrap the military tribunals.

“Guantanamo has been one illegal trial scheme after another,” said Christopher Anders, legislative counsel for the rights group. “After more than five years of people wasting away without being charged and tried, it’s time to convict the guilty and send the innocent to countries that don’t torture. The habeas bill is a good first step.”