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Nine retired federal judges accused the Bush administration and Congress of trying to deprive detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of the most basic legal right.
Legislation under debate on Capitol Hill would strip federal courts of the power to hear detainees’ challenges of their treatment and indefinite detention at the Guantanamo Bay.
"Depriving the courts of habeas jurisdiction will jeopardize the judiciary’s ability to ensure that executive detentions are not grounded on torture or other abuse," the nine wrote Thursday in a letter to Congress.
Congress and the Bush administration would be skating "on thin constitutional ice" in depriving courts of their power to hear Guantanamo detainees, the letter added.
The retired judges said federal courts have long balanced the rights of defendants against the need to protect classified information vital to the nation’s security.
Most of the attention in the debate over detainee rights at Guantanamo Bay has focused on how to conduct military commission trials that meet constitutional standards. Plans call for trying a few detainees, while the remainder, more than 450 in all, remain in indefinite detention.
By focusing on military commissions, the White House and Congress "have chosen to address the tail rather than the dog, and the result is that the Constitution is getting bitten," Eric M. Freedman said in an interview. He is a Hofstra University professor of constitutional law and a consultant to the legal team representing the Guantanamo detainees.
The nine retirees who signed the letter are appeals court judges John Gibbons, Shirley Hufstedler, Nathaniel Jones, Timothy Lewis, William Norris, George Pratt, Lee Sarokin, Patricia Wald and U.S. District Judge William Sessions.