Court: Judges Need All Detainee Evidence

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

WASHINGTON – When Guantanamo Bay detainees challenge their status as “enemy combatants,” judges must review all the evidence, not just what the military chooses, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected the Bush administration’s plan to limit what judges can review when considering whether the military tribunal acted appropriately.

When detainees are brought before military tribunals, they are not allowed to have lawyers with them and the Pentagon decides what evidence to put forward. Unlike in criminal trials, there is no obligation for the government to turn over evidence that the defendant might be innocent.

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If the tribunal determines that a prisoner is an enemy combatant, he can challenge that designation in a federal appeals court. During that appeal, government attorneys argued, federal judges have the authority only to review the evidence the Pentagon chose to put forward.

The appeals court ruled Friday that they needed all the evidence. Without all the information, the court said, deciding whether the tribunal acted appropriately would be like trying to figure out the value of a fraction without knowing both numbers.

The decision is significant because if the Supreme Court upholds the administration’s tribunal system, federal courts will have a broader review of the process than previously proposed.

“The court has resoundingly rejected the government’s effort to control the record and to limit an investigation into the truth,” said attorney Sabin Willett, who argued the case.

But the opinion still restricts the rights of detainees to a level far below what would be required if they were being charged in a civilian U.S. criminal court. The government is allowed to read and redact legal mail, the court ruled, and can withhold sensitive evidence from lawyers, but not the court.

The Supreme Court will soon consider whether detainees have the right to challenge their detention in federal courts. That right was stripped away by the most recent terrorism law.

Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney involved in other detainee cases, said Friday’s court ruling is only a minor improvement in a seriously flawed process.

“It’s definitely better than what the government had proposed but it still doesn’t provide for a meaningful process,” Hafetz said.

The Justice Department argues that the detainees are being afforded more rights than any required by law. The government argues that it cannot bring the detainee cases in civilian courts without jeopardizing national security.

Friday’s unanimous decision was issued by Judges Douglas Ginsburg, Judith Rogers and Karen Lecraft Henderson. Rogers is a Clinton appointee. Ginsburg, the chief judge of the appeals court, is a President Reagan appointee. Henderon was appointed by President Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)