SEATTLE -- The American Bar Association on Monday denounced the classification of certain U.S. terrorism suspects as "enemy combatants," which has allowed the government to hold them indefinitely and block access to lawyers and courts.
The ABA policy concerns only American citizens and U.S. residents, which the group said would include illegal immigrants.
Only two people are known to fall into the category, though civil libertarians say if anyone can be denied legal rights others are at risk. The vast majority of enemy combatants are foreigners being held at a U.S. military base in Cuba.
U.S. Attorney John McKay, speaking for the government, told ABA policy-makers that enemy combatants are not entitled to traditional civil rights and the treatment should not be changed.
"The Justice Department believes that doing this would critically undermine our national security and frustrate the military's effort to collect vital intelligence information," McKay said.
The ABA's resolution urges Congress to set standards for the detentions. Combatants should be allowed to see attorneys and challenge their imprisonment in court, the group said. Some access to courts is allowed now, but the ABA said there is not "meaningful review."
Supporters said the changes would ensure that the government's zeal to catch terrorists doesn't take in innocent people.
"I'm not standing up for terrorists," said Miami lawyer Neal Sonnett, an architect of the proposal who has received what he called hate mail for his work.
Enemy combatants are held without charge or trial and are not allowed to see lawyers. The Bush administration has aggressively argued in court that the detentions are constitutional.
The government will not release the names of those held as combatants. Just two examples of American detainees are known: Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member accused of plotting to detonate a "dirty" bomb, and Yasser Esam Hamdi, a native of Louisiana who was captured in Afghanistan.
The enemy combatant issue was among several that the 400,000-member ABA was debating at its winter meeting in Seattle. In other action, the lawyers:
--Endorsed a resolution calling for more oversight of wiretapping and searches granted by the court that handles government requests to gather intelligence on suspected spies, terrorists or foreign agents in the United States.
The association will urge Congress to require the court to give annual statistics of its work and clarify when it can allow surveillance.
-- Approved new standards for lawyers in death penalty cases. States that pay for the defenses of poor defendants will be urged to bolster defense teams to include two lawyers, an investigator and a background specialist. The ABA also called for better investigations and records of complaints about inadequate lawyers.
-- Had a hard time deciding the timing of a debate on a controversial asbestos lawsuit proposal. The vote had been scheduled for Tuesday, the final day of the group's meeting in Seattle. ABA leaders moved it to Monday, then switched it back again by a vote of 227-226.
Opponents of the plan handed out literature outside the group's meeting. They also brought victims of asbestosis to Seattle to lobby against the proposal that would limit who could sue.
The plan, intended to help courts deal with massive numbers of lawsuits, restricts court action to people with asbestos-related pulmonary disease.
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