WASHINGTON – In a decision that highlights the legal tension over the Guantanamo Bay prison, a federal magistrate has ordered the Bush administration to stop blocking a private attorney from meeting with one of the facility's 500 detainees.
The 33-page opinion by U.S. Magistrate Alan Kay chronicles problems that have hindered access to the courts for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, despite a Supreme Court ruling nearly two years ago that opened the door.
Kay's ruling may be one of the last by lower court judges dealing with Guantanamo Bay. President Bush signed legislation Dec. 30 that sharply curtails detainees' ability to go to court. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is considering whether the law also curtails existing detainee cases.
In an opinion released this week about a detainee named Salim Muhood Adem, Kay said 10 detainee cases have been at a standstill in the courts since October while the administration contests whether one detainee can file a petition on behalf of another.
Fifty-six other detainees who represent themselves sent petitions through the military's mail system and they took as long as six months to arrive at court, according to Kay's ruling.
Nearly a year after the 56 petitions were written by the detainees, Kay wrote, "not a single detainee ... had met or spoken with his lawyer."
Kay said attempts to inform detainees of their rights in writing "have been, at best, fraught with difficulty."
There are about 500 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. More than 200 lawsuits have been filed on behalf of more than 300 detainees.
Last summer, the government began challenging the right of detainees serving as "next friends" to request legal representation for fellow detainees, Kay stated.
At the same time, the government refused to allow Adem's lawyer to meet with him.
The refusal prevented Adem's lawyer from obtaining the authorization necessary to convert the case to a direct petition, the magistrate stated.
The government suggested that Adem's lawyer mail a letter to Adem seeking authorization to represent him, creating a "Catch-22," Kay noted.
That's because the government barred the lawyer from using the military's swift delivery system for legal mail, since the government refused to acknowledge the lawyer's authority to represent Adem.
The letter from early January had to be sent instead by much slower nonlegal military mail, which is subject to review and censorship by military personnel at Guantanamo. The attorney hasn't heard back yet.
"They are not singling me out," Adem's lawyer, Murray Fogler, said Friday of the Bush administration. "They are treating a vast array of detainees this way. The government is setting up as many roadblocks as they can."
Adem, a Sudanese national, was arrested in Pakistan where he had lived since 1991. The U.S. military alleges he is an Al Qaeda associate. Adem says he was an education official working for an Islamic charity.