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A US federal judge on Thursday rejected a new set of rules proposed by the Obama administration that would have placed added restrictions on lawyers' access to Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the US District Court in Washington said a four-year-old court order on lawyer access at the US naval base in Cuba was working well and would continue to govern the exchanges.
In a blistering opinion, Lamberth accused President Barack Obama's administration of confusing “the roles of the jailer and the judiciary.”
He lashed out at the federal government's “preposterous position” that detainees seeking counsel represent themselves in legal proceedings or write to the court, even though most Guantanamo detainees do not know English and, in some cases, are illiterate in their own languages.
The judge, who was appointed by Republican president Ronald Reagan, criticised Obama's Democratic administration for engaging in an “illegitimate exercise of executive power” by trying to change the rules.
“In the case of Guantanamo detainees, access to the courts means nothing without access to counsel,” Lamberth added.
He used his opinion to deliver a diatribe against the judicial process at Guantanamo, noting that since the first detainees were brought there a decade ago, “only a handful” have been tried or convicted.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said the agency's lawyers were “reviewing” the ruling, and had no further comment.
The Pentagon and the Justice Department had told attorneys representing Guantanamo prisoners that they could no longer access the detention centre unless they signed a memorandum of understanding that the court said gave officials overwhelming discretion over visits by lawyers.
The memo would have applied to prisoners who lost their appeals in court or whose cases were otherwise denied or dismissed.
Under the new rules, the lawyers would have also been subjected to restrictions on classified information gleaned from their clients.
But Lamberth was adamant there was no need for a change.
“The old maxim 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' would seem to caution against altering a counsel-access regime that has proven safe, efficient and eminently workable,” he wrote.
“Indeed, the government had no answer when the court posed this question in oral arguments.”
The centre for Constitutional Rights, which represents several Guantanamo prisoners, hailed the opinion, saying the new rules would have given the government “unfettered control” over Guantanamo.
“Today's ruling reaffirms that constitutional rights are not subject to the whim of the executive,” CCR executive director Vincent Warren said in a statement.
“The court has correctly recognised the government's attempt to restrict attorney access to the men at Guantanamo as the latest in a 10-year history of successive efforts to 'delay, hinder or prevent access to the courts.'“ - Sapa-AFP