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Senate Eases Stance on Guantanamo Inmate Rights

Lawmakers vote to limit appeals but back off a more restrictive rule they approved last week.

November 16, 2005|Mark Mazzetti and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to place limits on the rights of terrorism suspects held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to appeal their detentions.

By doing so, it backed away from a more restrictive proposal passed last week that would have effectively overturned a 2004 Supreme Court decision giving prisoners the right to appeal to any federal court.

Tuesday's 84-14 vote marked the first time Congress had acknowledged the right of detainees at the island prison to challenge the rulings of military tribunals, established after the Sept. 11 attacks to try terrorism suspects.

Under the provision, Guantanamo Bay detainees would be allowed a one-time appeal of their designation as "enemy combatants" to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and, if necessary, the Supreme Court.

In addition, the provision grants an automatic appeal to the District of Columbia appellate court for any detainee a military tribunal sentences to at least 10 years in prison.

Senators who voted for the provision, an amendment to the annual defense budget bill, said it was necessary to reduce the burden on the U.S. court system by limiting appeals.

Both of California's senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, supported the detainee amendment, a bipartisan compromise that scaled back a measure, approved by the Senate last week, that stripped inmates at Guantanamo Bay of the right to file habeas corpus motions in U.S. courts.

That measure, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), would have nullified a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that the prison was not outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law and that the Constitution permitted inmates to file habeas corpus petitions -- demands for legal justification for their imprisonment.

But after many lawmakers expressed concerns that the measure was too tough, Graham worked with Democrats on a compromise. On Tuesday he and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) -- who joined Graham as coauthor of the new amendment -- were happy with the result.

Both senators said it was important for Congress to weigh in on the thorny legal issues involved in the confinement of hundreds of terrorism suspects the U.S. has detained since 2001.

"Congress has a role and a responsibility to set the ground rules for how detainees are going to be tried and how their status is determined," Levin said. "This is not something the executive branch can just do what it wants [with] unilaterally and have it be accepted by the Congress and by the rest of the world."

The House version of the defense bill makes no reference to the detention or prosecution of terrorism suspects. Whether the amendment survives is likely to be decided by a House-Senate conference committee.

Some legal experts criticized the hasty way senators were tackling such complex issues.

Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington, said the Senate's eagerness to place limits on habeas corpus petitions might only muddy the waters as courts attempt to determine prisoners' legal rights. "It's like the sorcerer's apprentice," Fidell said. "They've created a whole raft of new issues."

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