Lawyers for detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention center argued today in court that a new policy requiring genital searches of their clients before meetings and phone calls was degrading and part of an attempt to discourage communication with counsel.
U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth heard argument today on emergency motions filed by the detainees' lawyers to block the new search policy, which also applied to detainees' phone calls with family. Covington & Burling senior counsel S. William Livingston called the policy a situation "where something that isn't broken is being fixed." Much of the 90-minute hearing was sealed.
Lamberth did not rule from the bench and did not give any indication on how he might rule during the public portion of the hearing. The judge previously has struck down attempts by the federal government to change policies governing access to counsel at the detention facility.
The government, Livingston said, hadn't specified why it adopted the new search policy, but he believed it was punishment for a prisoner hunger strike. In the past, he said, officials found other ways to search for contraband, recognizing genital searches were invasive and could represent a violation of detainees' religious beliefs.
Livingston said two client phone calls were recently cancelled and he believed it was because of the new search policy. Given the amount of supervision the detainees are already subject to and the searches lawyers have to undergo to meet with their clients, he said there was no justification for the change; he argued it was especially unnecessary for phone calls. He added that the government had never suggested the detainees' lawyers were a source of contraband.
"This is not the Baltimore City jail," he said, a reference to recent reports of prisoners at that facility receiving contraband. "This is a hermetically sealed environment."
Brent Rushforth of McKool Smith, another lawyer for detainees, read excerpts from letters he received from his clients explaining that they could no longer meet because they did want to go through the "humanly degrading" search, calling it a "horrible development." Rushforth said he had plans to travel to the facility next week, but would be forced to cancel unless Lamberth intervened.
The government did not respond to the detainees’ lawyers until after Lamberth closed the courtroom. In sealing the proceedings, Lamberth explained the government responses would involve information about the detention facility covered by a protective order. After the hearing, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Ronald Wiltsie declined to comment on the sealed proceedings, which lasted about an hour.
Lawyers for the detainees also declined to talk about what was discussed. Lamberth did not say when he planned to issue a ruling.