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Ruling on detainees reignites debate

Lawmakers push to overhaul system

WASHINGTON -- The decision by US military judges Monday to dismiss the war crimes charges against two detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has reignited a debate over how to try those accused of terrorism, prompting members of Congress to challenge the Bush administration over a legal system they say denies proper rights to detainees and has yet to bring a single case to trial.

In dismissing the charges against detainees from Canada and Yemen, the judges ruled that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 lacked jurisdiction because that law limits cases to those who are deemed "unlawful enemy combatants." Because a tribunal had officially deemed both men enemy combatants, the letter of the law did not allow the detainees to go to trial, the judges determined. Prosecutors say they hope to try about 80 of the 380 detainees still at Guantanamo, but all such cases are now on hold .

There long have been bipartisan calls to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, but congressional efforts instead have aimed at fixing a legal system there that some consider broken, but inevitable. Members of Congress who have opposed the commissions act renewed their calls for a new system, either demanding that the detainees be moved to US federal courts or that the law be rewritten to grant detainees important rights, such as habeas corpus.

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee and an outspoken opponent of the Military Commissions Act, said yesterday that legislation he and Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, have sponsored to restore habeas rights will be taken up by the committee this week. Both senators have argued that the law is dangerous because it suspended habeas corpus, or the right of detainees at Guantanamo to challenge their detention in federal courts.

"These court decisions underscore that, far from being beyond reproach, the system set up by this administration in the weeks before the last election is not adequate and cannot be trusted with the liberties of millions of people," Leahy said. He called Monday's decisions "the latest rebukes" of the "legally suspect systems for addressing detainees."

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said legislation restoring habeas corpus rights would be brought to the Senate floor, possibly this month.

Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, in recent months drafted a provision included in the Defense Authorization bill that would overhaul the military's Combatant Status Review Tribunals at Guantanamo. The provision, according to congressional staff members familiar with its language, would allow detainees to have lawyers at the tribunals that decide their enemy combatant status, would give them access to the evidence against them, and would bar evidence obtained by coercion. It also would put a military judge in charge of the hearings.

Levin's language would make the commissions act's definition of "unlawful enemy combatant" the same as it is in the review tribunals, effectively eliminating the problem identified at Guantanamo on Monday.

The moves on Capitol Hill could set up a clash with the Bush administration, which yesterday disagreed with the judges' rulings. "In no way does this decision affect the appropriateness of the military commission system," White House spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters traveling with President Bush in Prague yesterday, according to Reuters.

Appellate review of the judges' decision could allow the process to continue, and Bush could veto any legislation dealing with the issue.

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