A federal judge ruled Wednesday that terrorism suspects held at a U.S. base in Cuba must be allowed to meet with lawyers and that the government cannot monitor their conversations.
In a sharp rebuke of the Bush administration, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said the administration attempted to "erode this bedrock principle" of attorney-client privacy with "a flimsy assemblage" of arguments.
The Supreme Court ruled in June that the 600 foreign-born men then held in the Navy-run prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could challenge their captivity in American courts.
Kollar-Kotelly, a former Justice Department lawyer named to the bench by President Clinton, said that would be impossible without legal help.
"They have been detained virtually incommunicado for nearly three years without being charged with any crime. To say that [detainees'] ability to investigate the circumstances surrounding their capture and detention is 'seriously impaired' is an understatement," she wrote.
She also said it was impossible for the men "to grapple with the complexities of a foreign legal system and present their claims to this court" without lawyers, access to a law library and fluency in English.
"We are reviewing the decision," Justice Department spokesman John Nowacki said.
Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents some of the detainees, called it "a wonderful vindication of what the Supreme Court said they had a right to have: access to lawyers."
"The government had dug in here as if the Supreme Court ruling did not exist. It took a federal judge to tell them that's not the case," he said.
Multiple cases have been filed in federal court in Washington on behalf of Guantanamo detainees.
Kollar-Kotelly's decision, the most significant since the Supreme Court's June ruling, came in the case of three Kuwaiti nationals who have been held since shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Government lawyers had agreed to let the men see attorneys, but argued that it was not legally required. The government also wanted to monitor the meetings and review notes and mail -- something Kollar-Kotelly said would infringe on the detainees' attorney-client privilege.
The government had said the three detainees were particular risks and should have their attorney meetings monitored. Thomas B. Wilner, the lawyer for the three men and nine other Kuwaitis, said Wednesday he hoped to arrange meetings soon.