Senators Spar Over Restoring Habeas Corpus Sen. Arlen Specter and others seek to restore the right of habeas corpus to Guantanamo detainees, despite strong opposition from the Bush administration. Prisoners' rights to challenge their detention were stripped by last year's law on military commissions. On Friday, the United States will hold closed hearings on the status of 14 prisoners.
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Senators Spar Over Restoring Habeas Corpus

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Senators Spar Over Restoring Habeas Corpus

Senators Spar Over Restoring Habeas Corpus

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Tomorrow at the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a series of military hearings begins behind closed doors. Being decided is whether 14 suspected terrorists transferred there from secret CIA prisons should be tried by military commissions as unlawful enemy combatants. The defendants include Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks.

When Congress created those military commissions last year, it decided that habeas corpus, or the right of such detainees to challenge their detention in court, did not apply. There's now a new push in Congress to restore that right as NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Lawmakers who did away with habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees argued that these were some of the worst people on Earth. But at a news conference today here at the Capitol, detainee lawyer Agniska Frishman(ph) had quite a different story to tell. She described how one of her clients, a Pakistani from Karachi, was kidnapped for a bounty, handed over to Americans, and put on a plane for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Ms. AGNISKA FRISHMAN (Attorney): He was 18 years old when he was picked up. He spent five years at Guantanamo. In that time his father died, his family's been plunged into poverty, and now he's been cleared for release. But you know, given the way things are going, it could be five more years until he's released. And we have no way of moving the process along.

WELNA: In fact, only 10 of the 390 people being held in Guantanamo have been charged with anything. Petitions by 160 inmates challenging their detention in court have been thrown out due to the law passed by Congress. That appalls Republican Senator Arlen Specter, who predicts the Supreme Court will find the stripping of habeas corpus rights unconstitutional.

Senator ALREN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): And I don't think this Congress ought to wait or punt to the Supreme Court. We passed a statute which takes away federal court jurisdiction to make a simple determination, is there a reason to hold them? And we ought not to let that stand.

Specter's been trying all week to add an amendment to legislation on the Senate floor dealing with homeland security protections. His measure would restore that right of habeas corpus, despite strong opposition from the Bush administration.

Still, some Republicans have expressed been supportive, including New Hampshire's John Sununu.

Senator JOHN SUNUNU (Republican, New Hampshire): It is consistent with the principles of due process that are so important to this country that we give that detainee at least one opportunity to object in a court the specifics that led to them being determined an enemy combatant.

WELNA: Democrats have also expressed support, but restoring habeas corpus rights is fiercely opposed by many Republicans, including South Carolina's Lindsey Graham.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Can you imagine five years after 9/11 that Congress would open up any federal courtroom, that a lawyer could shop to find whatever judge the lawyer could find in the country, and allow Sheik Mohammed to sue our own military about his status, creating a nightmare zoo courtroom trial, bringing people from all over the world to determine his status, where the judge would have the say, not the military? That would be a mistake of monumental proportions.

WELNA: Graham points to a recent federal appeals court decision upholding the Military Commissions Act. Specter says that ruling's at odds with the Supreme Court, in that it argues Congress has a right to pass statutes…

Sen. SPECTER: But ignores the plain language of Justice Stevens speaking for a majority of the court that it's a constitutional right, and that cannot be changed by an act of Congress. And the Supreme Court will tell the court of appeals that when they get the case.

WELNA: Specter admits there's little prospect of even getting a vote on his amendment. He's confident though the high court ultimately will restore habeas corpus.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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