Lawyers allowed to visit Gitmo detainees more

/ Source: The Associated Press

After criticism it was undermining fair trials, the Bush administration dropped its plan to limit the number of times defense attorneys could visit terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The government had sought to limit lawyers to three visits and curb access to detainees’ mail in the name of maintaining security at the U.S. military facility in Cuba. But in a motion filed Friday at U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia Circuit, the Justice Department said the limits on lawyer visits were no longer necessary.

“Based on a current evaluation of resources and needs at Guantanamo, the (government) has decided this provision is no longer warranted,” Justice Department attorneys wrote in the 6-page motion.

The government also said it would allow defense counsel to send mail to detainees once they establish and prove an attorney-client relationship. Initially, the Justice Department charged that the lawyer-detainee mail system “was misused” to inform detainees about terrorist attacks, military operations in Iraq, activities of terrorist leaders, efforts in the war on terror, the Hezbollah attack on Israel and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.

Last month, the proposed policy was roundly criticized by the American Bar Association as a violation of constitutional rights to a fair trial. An ABA spokeswoman did not have an immediate comment on the government’s reversal Friday.

Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney who has followed and argued detainee cases for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said the Justice Department reversed itself on the three-visit rule because it knew it would lose.

“It’s another example of, on the eve of a court hearing, the government walks away when it thinks it’s going to lose,” he said.

“I think it was certainly an onerous restriction and an indefensible restriction,” he said.

But he said it doesn’t address other important issues that will be argued next week, such as how much evidence the government provides defense attorneys and what access the military has to attorney-client communications.

Arguments in the case, pitting two detainees against Defense Secretary Robert Gates, are scheduled for May 15.