After the first hearing on the government’s evidence for holding inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a federal judge issued the Bush administration a sharp setback on Thursday, ruling that five Algerian men were held unlawfully for nearly seven years and ordering their release.
The judge, Richard J. Leon of U.S. District Court in Washington, said the government’s secret evidence in the case had been weak: what he described as “a classified document from an unnamed source” for its central claim against the men, with little way to measure credibility.
“To rest on so thin a reed would be inconsistent with this court’s obligation,” Leon said. He urged the government not to appeal and said the men should be released “forthwith.”
The habeas corpus case was an important test of the administration’s detention policies, which critics have long argued swept up innocent men and low-level foot soldiers along with hardened fighters and terror commanders.
The judge also ruled that a sixth Algerian man was being lawfully detained because he was a facilitator for the terrorist group al-Qaida, arranging travel for others to fight the United States, and planned to become a fighter himself.
The six men are among a group of Guantanamo inmates who won a 5-to-4 Supreme Court ruling in June that the detainees had a constitutional right to seek their release in federal court. The decision said a 2006 law unconstitutionally stripped the detainees of their right to contest their imprisonment in habeas corpus lawsuits.
A weeklong hearing for the Algerians, in which all of the evidence was heard in proceedings that were closed to the public, were the first in which the Justice Department was required to present its full justification for holding specific detainees since the Supreme Court ruling.
More than 200 other habeas corpus cases have been filed on behalf of Guantanamo detainees. Leon, in a ruling from the bench, said that the information gathered on the men had been sufficient for intelligence purposes but not for the court.
He said the government’s case, which contended that the five men planned to travel to Afghanistan and take up arms against the United States, relied exclusively on information obtained from the single unnamed source.
Leon, who was appointed by President Bush, had ruled in 2005 that the men had no habeas corpus rights and he been expected to be sympathetic to the government in the current case.
As he read his decision in a quiet courtroom, he seemed to bridle at the Supreme Court’s ruling, saying its effect was “to superimpose the habeas corpus process into the world of intelligence gathering.”
He said his decision, which involved men first detained in Bosnia far from the war in Afghanistan, should not be read as a reflection on the strength of the cases against other detainees. “This is a unique case,” he said.
Still, there was a buzz in the gallery when he announced that the government had not proved its case against the five men. In urging the government not to continue to fight the case, he noted that an appeal could take as long as two years.