US law proposal attacked by campaigners
From: The Observer Sunday, 11/13/05
David Rose

Human rights campaigners are calling it the ‘November surprise’ – a last-minute amendment smuggled into a Pentagon finance bill in the US Senate last Thursday.

Its effects are likely to be devastating: the permanent removal of almost all legal rights from ‘war on terror’ detainees at Guantanamo Bay and every other similar US facility on foreign or American soil.

‘What the British law lord Lord Steyn once called a legal black hole had begun to be filled in,’ said the British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, speaking from Guantanamo, where he represents more than 40 detainees. ‘It looks as if it is back, and deeper than before.’

If the amendment passes the House of Representatives unmodified, one of its immediate effects is that Stafford Smith and all the other lawyers who act for Guantanamo prisoners will again be denied access, as they were for more than two years after Camp X-Ray opened in 2002.

The amendment was tabled by Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and passed by 49 votes to 42. It reverses the Supreme Court’s decision in June last year which affirmed the right of detainees to bring habeas corpus petitions in American federal courts.

As a result, about 200 of Guantanamo’s 500 prisoners have filed such cases, many of them arguing that they are not terrorists, as the US authorities claim, and that the evidence against them is unreliable.

None of them were given any kind of hearing when they were consigned to Guantanamo. Instead, the Americans unilaterally declared they were unlawful ‘enemy combatants’, mostly on the basis of assessments by junior military intelligence personnel, who were often reliant on interpreters whose skills internal Pentagon reports have criticised.

The Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling also meant that the handful of prisoners facing trial at Guantanamo by military commissions, which do not follow the normal rules of evidence and due process, have been able to file federal challenges to their legality.

Last Monday, the Supreme Court announced it would review the commission rules by agreeing to take the case of Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni detainee and allegedly once Osama bin Laden’s driver. The Graham amendment, if passed, will stop this case, and the commissions will operate without further scrutiny.

Michael Ratner, the director of New York’s Centre for Constitutional Rights which brought the 2004 case, said the amendment ‘will create a thousand points of darkness across the globe where the United States will be free to hold people indefinitely without a hearing, beyond the reach of US law and the checks and balances in our constitution.’

A senior Pentagon lawyer who asked not to be named said that the Graham amendment will have another consequence. The same Pentagon bill also contains a clause, sponsored by Graham and the Arizona Republican John McCain, to outlaw torture at US detention camps – a move up to now fiercely resisted by the White House. ‘If detainees can’t talk to lawyers or file cases, how will anyone ever find out if they have been abused,’ the lawyer said.

Most of the evidence of abuse at Guantanamo has emerged from lawyers’ discussions with their clients.

Human rights groups and leading figures from the US military are urging the Senate to reconsider the amendment next week. Among those who have written open letters are John Hutson, the former Judge Advocate General of the US Navy, and the National Institute for Military Justice, a think-tank for military lawyers.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited