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US Senate Blocks Legislation to Restore Legal Rights to Detainees


Legislation that would have given detainees held by the United States the right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts has been blocked in the Senate by lawmakers arguing the measure would undermine the U.S. war on terrorism. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The Senate voted 56-43, four votes short of the 60 necessary, and largely along party lines, to limit debate and move the legislation to a final vote.

The measure would have restored to foreign terrorism suspects the right of habeas corpus, which bars the government from imprisoning people without a court review.

Congress revoked the right for non-U.S. citizens declared by the U.S. government as enemy combatants when it passed the Military Commissions Act last year.

But the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, says that right is guaranteed by the U.S. constitution.

"The Constitutional right of habeas corpus is expressly recognized in the Constitution, with the provision that habeas corpus may be suspended only in time of invasion or insurrection, neither of which situation is present here," said Specter. "That fundamental right has been in existence since the Magna Carta in 1215."

Specter was a key sponsor of the legislation to restore habeas corpus rights to detainees, as was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

"The truth is that casting aside the time-honored protection of habeas corpus makes us more vulnerable as a nation because it leads us away from our core American values and calls into question our historic role as the defender of human rights around the world," said Leahy. "It also allows our enemies to accomplish something that they could never achieve on the battlefield: whittling away the liberties that make us who we are."

But opponents, including the Bush administration, argued the legislation would undermine the war on terrorism. Senator Lindsey Graham is a South Carolina Republican who has served in the U.S. Air Force and as a military lawyer.

"It would be ill-advised for this Congress to confer on American courts the ability to hear a habeas petition from enemy prisoners housed at Guantanamo Bay, where they could go judge shopping and sue our own troops for anything they could think of, including $100 million lawsuit against the Secretary of Defense," said Graham. "That will lead to chaos at the jail, and undermine the war effort."

Earlier this year, a U.S. appeals court upheld that enemy combatants were not entitled to the right habeas corpus. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the matter in the coming months.

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