By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - The Obama administration overstepped its authority by trying to impose new restrictions on attorney access to prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, a federal judge ruled on Thursday.
Ruling in Washington, Chief Judge Royce Lamberth said the previous rules established by the U.S. District Court in Washington four years ago were working well and would continue to govern lawyers' access to Guantanamo prisoners.
The government had argued the new rules did not make substantial changes. In a scathing opinion, Lamberth called one of the government's arguments "quite preposterous" and said another "does not pass the smell test."
"The government's attempt to supersede the court's authority is an illegitimate exercise of executive power," he wrote in the ruling.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The federal court in Washington handles legal challenges from Guantanamo prisoners who are seeking their freedom by challenging the government's evidence for holding them. That court negotiated the rules governing lawyers' access to their Guantanamo clients.
A few months ago, the Justice Department sought to put new restrictions on attorney visits to prisoners whose cases had been denied or dismissed.
It asked them to sign a "memorandum of understanding" that the court said essentially gave the commander of the detention operation unfettered authority and discretion over attorney visits.
The new rules would have restricted the number of lawyers and interpreters who could visit any given prisoner and put new restrictions on what the lawyers could do with classified information learned from prisoners, including documents the lawyers themselves had written.
Some of the lawyers refused to sign the memorandum of understanding and challenged the issue in court.
Lamberth said few of the prisoners were fluent in English or knowledgeable about U.S. law, and that they were held in an isolated location without the means to file legal challenges on their own. He said those who had lost their cases still had the right to file appeals or new challenges under laws that had been revised.
"In the case of Guantanamo detainees, access to the courts means nothing without access to counsel," Lamberth wrote.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has challenged the Guantanamo detention operation, praised the decision.
"The new rules came out of the blue and can only be seen as an effort to punish the men at Guantanamo for exercising their right to challenge their detention," the group's executive director, Vincent Warren, said in a statement.
The detention camp was established at the Guantanamo base in Cuba shortly after the September 11 attacks to hold foreign captives suspected of involvement with al Qaeda, the Taliban or other militant groups. Of the 779 men held there, 168 remain.
(Reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by Peter Cooney)