Friday, November 21, 2008

US judge orders release of Guantánamo five

• ‘No legal basis’ to detain Algerians seized in Bosnia
• 200 more habeas corpus petitions awaiting rulings

A US judge ruled yesterday that five Algerian prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay must be set free, in a decision with far-reaching implications for the remaining detainees at the base in Cuba.

District court judge Richard Leon ruled in a Washington DC court that there was no legal basis to keep the five in prison. It is the first verdict in more than 200 habeas corpus petitions being brought before the US courts. The petitions challenge the American government to prove that there is evidence to justify keeping the men in Guantánamo Bay. The judge, known for his conservative views, said the US government should not appeal.

“The decision by Judge Leon lays bare the flimsy basis on which Guantánamo has been founded - at best, slim evidence of dubious quality, at worst, nothing,” said Zachary Katznelson, legal director of Reprieve, the British legal action charity whose lawyers represent 33 Guantánamo prisoners. “This is a tough, no-nonsense judge. If he found there wasn’t evidence to justify holding the men, you can be sure it wasn’t there.”

President-elect Barack Obama has promised to close down the prison camp as soon as he takes office, saying that Guantánamo “has done much to besmirch the reputation of the United States”.

His team is considering what to do with detainees. One possibility is the setting up of “security courts”, but the new administration is well aware it faces major diplomatic, political, and legal problems.

The latest hearing involved six Algerian nationals, five of whom are also Bosnian citizens and who were originally accused of plotting to blow up the US embassy in Bosnia. The men had been acquitted on these charges in Bosnia but were seized by the US and rendered to Guantánamo Bay.

“It is an illustration of the catastrophic policies of the Bush administration - ignoring the legitimate ruling of the court of an ally, rendering these men away from their homes and families, and holding them without legal recourse in Guantánamo Bay for six years,” said Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve. “There are plenty more cases of injustice ahead of us, including the plight of the British residents who remain in this terrible place.”

Judge Leon’s ruling on the detainees is the first since the US supreme court ruled in June that every prisoner in Guantánamo had the right to contest his imprisonment in the civilian courts.

Reading his ruling as the detainees listened in Guantánamo via a telephone link, Leon said the US government failed to show the five detainees had planned to travel to Afghanistan to fight US forces.

Ordering the release of the five, Leon said the allegation was based on a single source, and he did not have enough information to judge the source’s reliability or credibility. He ordered the US government to take all necessary and diplomatic steps to facilitate their release “forthwith”.

The judge ruled the government did provide enough evidence that the sixth detainee, Belkacem Bensayah, had planned to take up arms against the United States in Afghanistan.

Lawyers acting for Binyam Mohamed, a British resident held at Guantánamo Bay, are demanding his release. They want US documents - some of which have been seen by the British government - to be disclosed, saying they will reveal that Mohamed had been tortured.

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