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Lawyers: Gitmo letters confiscated

The military won't comment on defense lawyers' claims it took legal papers during an investigation into suicides by detainees.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published July 1, 2006


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Defense lawyers said Friday that authorities at the Guantanamo Bay prison confiscated letters to detainees and other legal papers as part of an investigation into three apparent suicides three weeks ago at the facility.

U.S. military officials declined to discuss whether papers were seized.

Attorneys said at least one detainee claimed it was because prison officials suspected the lawyers might have had advance knowledge of suicide attempts, or encouraged them as a protest - an allegation the lawyers deny.

"They think that they are going to find letters from us suggesting suicide. It's ludicrous," said Clive Stafford Smith, legal director for Reprieve, a British human rights group that has filed legal challenges on behalf of about 35 men held at the prison.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has filed challenges on behalf of about 200 detainees, plans to have attorneys look into the seizure and press for the return of papers during a visit to the jail next week, said Bill Goodman, the group's legal director.

"This is a huge breach of attorney-client privilege," Goodman said.

The papers deal mostly with challenges filed on behalf of detainees in civilian courts in the United States.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled the lawsuits could go forward even though Congress stripped detainees of the right to file the petitions in December 2005. The court ruled the law couldn't apply to legal challenges begun before it was enacted.

In the aftermath of the high court's ruling, the Bush administration asked a federal appeals court in Washington to order more legal arguments from lawyers on both sides as to what effect the decision will have on these civil lawsuits.

The court also ruled that President Bush's order to have military tribunals hold war crimes trials for detainees violated both U.S. and international law. The Bush administration now is looking to Congress for authority to deal with suspected terrorists.

Lawyers said the military confiscated letters and other legal papers after three detainees, two from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen, hanged themselves inside their cells on June 10, the first deaths reported at the prison since it opened in January 2002.

A spokesman at the Guantanamo base, Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand, referred questions about the legal papers to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which is handling the inquiry into the deaths.

A spokesman for the investigative service declined to comment.

Defense attorney Richard Wilson said in an affidavit that a military legal official told him that investigators had seized all personal papers from every detainee as part of the investigation.

Wilson, who represents Canadian detainee Omar Khadr, added in the affidavit that the official said he "did not believe that there is any investigation of attorneys themselves as to involvement or encouragement of the deaths."

However, Wilson said, at least one detainee, Binyam Muhammad, an alleged al-Qaida member from Ethiopia, told his military appointed-counsel, Air Force Maj. Yvonne Bradley, that guards claimed they seized all his legal materials as part of an investigation into "whether lawyers had actively encouraged detainees to commit suicide."

The United States holds about 450 men at Guantanamo on suspicion of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban.