The Bush administration shifted position and decided that Yaser Esam Hamdi, a U.S. citizen jailed as an “enemy combatant” after being captured with Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan, should be allowed access to a lawyer.
The Washington Post said the change came on the eve of a government filing due today at the Supreme Court, which has been asked by a federal public defender in Virginia to review Hamdi’s detention. The Defense Department said Hamdi could see a lawyer “as a matter of discretion and military policy.” The government said the procedure “should not be treated as a precedent.”
The Post says that Hamdi’s case has come to symbolize conflicting arguments in the war on terrorism. The government convinced a federal appeals court in Richmond that the military had the sole authority to wage war and that courts should defer to battlefield judgments. More than 100 law professors and other experts argued that no U.S. citizen may be held without a lawyer. Hamdi is being held at the Charleston Consolidated Naval Brig in South Carolina.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a University of Southern California law professor who has taken part in arguing Hamdi’s case, praised the government’s decision but said Hamdi’s effort to challenge his detention packs more legal significance. “If the government wins and can hold Hamdi without any due process, then having a lawyer doesn’t mean very much,” he said.
The federal action yesterday does not affect two other men held as enemy combatants: Jose Padilla, who allegedly plotted to detonate a dirty bomb, and Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who was placed under military control in June after President Bush said he was an al Qaeda sleeper agent.
One administration official said the Pentagon’s reversal came after pressure from Justice Department lawyers. “There’s a general understanding that this is the correct policy for U.S. citizens,” the official said. “It’s the right thing to do.”