WASHINGTON - More than seven years after the opening of
Guantanamo Bay jail, a US judge Thursday for the first time
acknowledged that some of its inmates were illegally detained and
ordered their release.
In yet another blow to the administration
of President George W. Bush, a federal judge ordered that five
Algerians arrested in 2001 should be freed from the US military jail in
southern Cuba, built to house "war on terror" suspects.
court finds that the government has failed to show by burden of proof"
that the five had planned to go to Afghanistan to take up arms against
US forces, judge Richard Leon said.
But Leon found that a sixth
Guantanamo inmate, also from Algeria and arrested with the others in
Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2001, had been held legally.
ruling, in the first of the so-called "habeas corpus" hearings, was
simultaneously translated via a live telephone link to the six
prisoners in Guantanamo.
The hearing was held after the Supreme
Court on June 12 ruled that inmates in Guantanamo Bay had the right to
know under what charges they were being held and what the evidence was
Leon told the hearing that the sixth appeal brought
by Belkacem Bensayah, 46, was denied as the government had "established
by preponderance of evidence it is more likely than not that Mr
Bensayah planned to go to Afghanistan and to facilitate the travel of
any others to do the same.
"There can be no question that to
facilitate the travel to Afghanistan to fight the United States
constitutes direct support to Al-Qaeda," Leon said.
"Mr Bensayah is lawfully detained by the government as an enemy combatant."
hearing had opened on November 6, and the judge found in favor of five
others: Lakhdar Boumediene, 42, Mustafa Ait Idir, 38, Mohamed Nechla,
40, Hadji Boudella 43, and Saber Lahmar 39.
The decision came after a seven-day trial -- six days of which were behind closed doors.
of the evidence has trickled out from the case, except Leon revealed
two of the men had been questioned and cross-examined by
All six men were living in Bosnia, having dual Bosnian-Algerian nationalities, and were arrested at the end of 2001.
charges of plotting to attack the US embassy in Sarajevo were dropped,
but when their trial opened on November 6 they were accused of planning
to head to Afghanistan to fight US forces.
Lawyer for the Guantanamo inmates, Robert Kirsch, told AFP he was "relieved and gratified" at the judge's ruling.
"This is a great day for the American justice," he said.
Justice Department said in a statement that the "decision is perhaps an
understandable consequence of the fact that neither the Supreme Court
nor Congress has provided rules on how these habeas corpus cases should
proceed in this unprecedented context."
Government lawyers did not indicate whether they intend to appeal.
rights group Amnesty International said the decision "strikes another
blow to the Bush administration's deeply flawed policies of indefinite
detention, ill-treatment and injustice."
Amnesty also noted that
Judge Leon had asked the US government to "seriously consider the
available evidence before pursuing an appeal."
Leon, known for
his conservative rulings, is the first judge to complete a habeas
corpus hearing. More than 150 others are working their way through the
Some 250 prisoners languish at the Guantanamo military
base in southern Cuba and president-elect Barack Obama has already said
he will keep his campaign promise to shut the prison down when he takes
office in January.
Guantanamo Bay has tarnished the US reputation overseas, and human rights groups have long called for it to be closed.
and his administration have also admitted that the prison should be
shut, but there has been no agreement on what to do with the remaining
inmates many of whom face torture and repression if returned home.
political decision ordering the closure of the camp could end the long
legal battles of the Guantanamo inmates, by finally deciding whether
the president can hold indefinitely people suspected of terrorism even
if they have not committed any acts of terror.
In that respect
Leon's decision was a landmark one as he chose a broad definition of
"enemy combatant" to include mere support for Al-Qaeda or Taliban
militants and nonetheless concluded some detainees were illegally held.