Sunday, May 13, 2007

U.S. drops plans to limit lawyer Guantanamo visits

U.S. drops plans to limit lawyer Guantanamo visits
By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration said on Friday it no longer seeks to limit the number of meetings between Guantanamo prisoners and their lawyers, a proposal that had been strongly criticized by civil liberties and legal groups.

Administration attorneys told a U.S. appeals court the Defense Department, which runs the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, determined the proposed three-visit limit is "no longer warranted," based on "a current evaluation of resources and needs."

There have been no restrictions on the number of visits by attorneys with their clients at Guantanamo but last month Justice Department lawyers proposed limiting attorneys with existing clients at Guantanamo to just three visits.

Lawyers for the detainees had opposed the proposal for imposing an "arbitrary cap" and called it "antithetical to the attorney-client privilege." Civil liberties and legal groups denounced it for limiting attorney access to their clients.

There are about 385 prisoners at the Guantanamo prison. The first prisoners arrived more than five years ago after the United States launched its war on terrorism in response to the September 11 attacks.

The indefinite detentions and allegations of prisoner mistreatment at Guantanamo, which the U.S. military denies, have tarnished the U.S. image abroad and a chorus of allies has urged Bush to shut down the camp for foreign terrorism suspects.

The administration decision to drop the proposed limit on lawyer visits came ahead of an appeals court hearing scheduled for Tuesday to consider that and other proposed restrictions.

Guantanamo prisoners can ask the appeals court to review whether military tribunals have rightfully deemed them to be "an unlawful enemy combatant."

Justice Department lawyers said in a six-page court filing that the Defense Department still believes the other proposed restrictions are "warranted and appropriate."

One proposal would allow lawyer-client mail to be read by government officials who are not involved in the case.

Another proposed restriction would limit defense lawyers' access to classified information that was part of the tribunal record. They would get access only if the U.S. government determined they had a "need to know."

The appeals court is considering the procedures to govern the cases brought by the prisoners in light of an anti-terrorism law that President George W. Bush pushed through Congress last year.

That law took away the right of the prisoners to challenge their detention before U.S. district court judges in Washington, resulting in the dismissal of pending cases and a more limited review by the appeals court.