Camp boss: Don't limit lawyer visits

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- The commander of the Guantánamo prison camps said Thursday he no longer supports limiting terror suspects to only three meetings with their lawyers, explaining that a controversial proposal to limit such visits here evolved out of a turbulent time.

The Justice Department, in a filing with the federal circuit court of appeals, has argued that visits by civilian lawyers and attorney-client mail have caused "intractable problems and threats to security at Guantánamo."

It proposes limiting each detainee to three visits with a civilian attorney. That effort has roiled America's legal establishment, drawing condemnation from newspaper editorials, the American Bar Association and other legal groups.

A hearing is scheduled later this month at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

But in an interview with The Miami Herald and Saudi Press Agency on Wednesday evening, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, the commander, was supportive of the ongoing meetings between detainees and lawyers, known as habeas corpus counsel. He said they contributed to an image of transparency at the prison camps on this remote U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

"I have no issue with habeas visits, " he said. "The detainees ought to have an opportunity to visit with lawyers to discuss their cases."

He called handling the visits "a lot of work" for his sailor-soldier guard force. "But it's good work."

Harris said Thursday in a statement that the court filing was written this summer -- after a particularly violent period in the camps -- and some other limits are no longer necessary.

"The filing in August was made in the shadow of a riot in Camp 4, a mass . . . suicide attempt on that same day, and the suicides of three detainees less than a month later, " said Harris.

"We have since been able to adopt procedures to better monitor the detainees and better facilitate attorney visits. Therefore, we would have no objection to the court ordering more than the number of visits that were suggested back in August."

The Deparment of Justice declined to comment Thursday night.

This is only the latest struggle between the legal establishment and the Bush administration over the appropriate role of attorneys seeking to file civilian lawsuits on behalf of Guantánamo captives.

In January, an assistant secretary of defense stirred up a maelstrom in the legal community by calling on U.S. corporations to boycott law firms whose attorneys represent Guantánamo captives. The Pentagon distanced itself from the remarks, and Charles "Cully" Stimson, a reserve Navy lawyer, resigned his job.

Since 2004, dozens of private lawyers from across the nation have had one-on-one visits with captives who are often shackled to the floor, behind the razor wire under military escort and strict rules established between the Pentagon and the U.S. District Court in Washington.

Now that Congress has stripped the district court of jurisdiction over Guantánamo habeas corpus petitions, the Justice Department has proposed new stricter rules in the circuit court of appeals -- the bench now left with limited power to review Guantánamo cases.

The restrictions would not apply to lawyers representing Guantánamo captives facing trial by Military Commissions.