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U.S. senators vow to restore rights to detainees

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Influential U.S. senators vowed on Thursday to restore to foreign terrorism suspects the right to challenge their imprisonment, saying Congress made an historic blunder by stripping them of that right last year.

Hundreds of suspected al Qaeda and Taliban members held at a U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba could be affected.

The United States has drawn international criticism over its continued detention of terrorism suspects in Guantanamo, with human rights groups demanding the prison be closed and detainees charged with crimes or released.

Last year’s Congress, with a Republican majority, passed a law setting specific rules for U.S. military tribunals. It included a ban on non-citizens labelled “enemy combatants” from using “habeas corpus” petitions to challenge the legality of their detention in court, asserting that military panels at Guantanamo were a substitute for court review.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy warned that the rights of some 12 million legal aliens in the United States -- as well as any foreigners visiting the country -- had also been infringed by the new law.

“This new law means that any of these people can be detained forever ... without any ability to challenge their detention in federal court, or anywhere else, simply on the government’s say-so that they are awaiting determination as to whether they are enemy combatants,” the Vermont Democrat said.

“This is wrong. It is unconstitutional. It is un-American,” Leahy said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would share jurisdiction on changing the law.

A Defence Department lawyer and some committee Republicans said the law should be allowed to work and be examined by U.S. courts before Congress acts again.

“Detention of enemy combatants in wartime is not criminal punishment and therefore does not require that the individual be charged or tried in a court of law,” said Daniel Dell’Orto, principal deputy general counsel at the Pentagon.

Leahy, along with Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, has introduced legislation to restore habeas corpus right to detainees. With the help of Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, “I hope we can fix this serious and corrosive problem by this summer,” Leahy said.

Levin, a Michigan Democrat, agreed “we have an obligation to act now to establish a process that we can defend.”

The writ of habeas corpus -- the phrase in Latin for “you have the body” -- has been a centrepiece of Anglo-American jurisprudence since it was first developed over 300 years ago in Britain. It gives defendants the right to have their imprisonment reviewed by a court.

Administration officials say that some of those at Guantanamo have pledged to attack the United States again if released. Defence Secretary Robert Gates has recommended that Congress discuss with President George W. Bush ways to close the military prison without freeing the most dangerous detainees.