Ban All the Lawyers

Pris­on­ers at Guan­tanamo don’t re­ally need them, or so says the Jus­tice De­part­ment.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters To The Editor -

THE BUSH ad­min­is­tra­tion is ruth­lessly ex­ploit­ing the per­verted sys­tem of jus­tice ap­proved by Congress last year for for­eign pris­on­ers at Guan­tanamo Bay, Cuba. By strip­ping the de­tainees of the an­cient right of habeas cor­pus, Congress dras­ti­cally lim­ited their abil­ity to chal­lenge their de­ten­tions in U.S. courts. Now the ad­min­is­tra­tion is cit­ing that lim­i­ta­tion as an ex­cuse to cur­tail the pris­on­ers’ ac­cess to the civil­ian lawyers who have been rep­re­sent­ing them.

As first re­ported Thurs­day by the New York Times, the Jus­tice De­part­ment has asked the fed­eral ap­peals court charged with han­dling all ap­peals of the de­ten­tions to limit lawyers to three vis­its with their clients; al­low their cor­re­spon­dence with pris­on­ers to be opened and read; and give gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials the power to deny the lawyers ac­cess to ev­i­dence. If ac­cepted by the Court of Ap­peals for the D.C. Cir­cuit fol­low­ing a hear­ing next month, the rules would make it all but im­pos­si­ble for the hun­dreds of lawyers work­ing on Guan­tanamo cases, many of them with­out com­pen­sa­tion, to con­tinue de­fend­ing pris­on­ers.

The gov­ern­ment’s ar­gu­ment is that there is not much need for such rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Un­der the scheme ap­proved by Congress, re­view pan­els set up by the Pen­tagon are em­pow­ered to judge whether Guan­tanamo de­tainees are “en­emy com­bat­ants” sub­ject to de­ten­tion and to re­view their sta­tus pe­ri­od­i­cally. The pris­on­ers are not al­lowed lawyers at those hear­ings, and their only ap­peal can be to the D.C. Cir­cuit — which, in turn, is lim­ited to re­view­ing whether the Pen­tagon cor­rectly fol­lowed its own pro­ce­dures. That leaves a de­fense lawyer lit­tle to do, claims the Jus­tice De­part­ment.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s real con­cern, of course, is not about wast­ing the at­tor­ney’s time. The mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties at Guan­tanamo have de­vel­oped a deep an­tag­o­nism, tinged with para­noia, to­ward the lawyers — an at­ti­tude ex­em­pli­fied by the com­ments of for­mer de­ten­tion chief Cully Stim­son, who sug­gested that the law firms spon­sor­ing the pro bono work should be pun­ished by their cor­po­rate clients. The Pen­tagon in­sin­u­ates that the lawyers are in­spir­ing protests by the pris­on­ers or pass­ing their mes­sages to the out­side world.

In fact, civil­ian lawyers have pro­vided an in­valu­able ser­vice at Guan­tanamo. Their law­suits have forced the few re­forms that have taken place at the prison. They have rightly re­ported pub­licly on hunger strikes, sui­cide at­tempts and abu­sive treat­ment. Their in­ves­ti­ga­tions have made clear that many of those held at Guan­tanamo are not dan­ger­ous ter­ror­ists but Afghans forced into can­non­fod­der ser­vice by the Tal­iban, or Arabs who were swept up and sold by Pak­istani bounty hunters to the CIA.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s latest ma­neu­ver demon­strates anew why the le­gal sys­tem that Congress ap­proved is shame­fully in­ad­e­quate. Its logic is that Guan­tanamo pris­on­ers do not need the right of habeas cor­pus be­cause they are able to make their cases be­fore re­view pan­els and ap­peal to a fed­eral court. Yet now the ad­min­is­tra­tion it­self is ar­gu­ing that that sys­tem of re­view and ap­peal is so at­ten­u­ated that pris­on­ers hardly need lawyers. Democrats in Congress promised to cor­rect this trav­esty by restor­ing habeas cor­pus to Guan­tanamo; so far they have done noth­ing. That leaves it to the ap­peals court to re­ject the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posed re­stric­tions and pre­vent the in­jus­tice at Guan­tanamo from grow­ing still worse.

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