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New lawsuits challenge Congress's detainee act

Even before Bush has signed the legislation, defense lawyers are suing over its constitutionality.

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President Bush has yet to sign into law Congress's new terror-detainee legislation, but defense lawyers are already asking federal judges to strike down key parts of the measure as unconstitutional.

Two suits were filed this week in US District Court here. At issue: Whether the new antiterror legislation retroactively strips the courts of jurisdiction to hear detainee cases, and if so, would that amount to an unconstitutional suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.

Lawyers rushed to file suit before the measure, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, was signed into law.

"By filing when we did, we wanted to make sure that at least we preserved the retroactivity argument," says Michael Ratner of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed both suits.

The new legislation, passed a week ago Friday, bars judges from hearing detainee lawsuits. Instead, it sets up a much more limited appeals process for detainees who are seeking to challenge their designation as an enemy combatant or to challenge a war crimes conviction by a military commission.

One suit was filed on behalf of Majid Khan, one of the 14 so-called high value Al Qaeda suspects recently transferred from secret Central Intelligence Agency prisons to the terrorist detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The other was filed on behalf of 25 detainees being held among some 500 men at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

The new suits join more than 400 other detainee cases filed on behalf of prisoners at Guantánamo currently pending before US district or appeals court judges in Washington. Lawyers in each of those cases are also expected to mount legal challenges to the Military Commissions Act.

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