Court Rules Against U.S. on Guantanamo Detainee

A federal appeals court has ruled that a prisoner being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should not be designated an enemy combatant. The prisoner is a Chinese Muslim known as a Uighur, who has been imprisoned for more than six years.

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A federal appeals court in Washington handed the Bush administration another big defeat today over its handling of Guantanamo detainees. This was the first court test of the military's designation of a detainee as an enemy combatant, and the Pentagon lost unanimously. The court said, in this case, that the government simply could not justify the enemy combatant label.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The 270 detainees at Guantanamo have all been declared enemy combatants after what's called a combatant status review by military panels. At these hearings, the detainee has no lawyer, is not allowed to call witnesses, is not allowed to see the allegations against him, and the military review panel is not independent but subject to command influence.

Under the Detainee Treatment Act passed by Congress at the behest of the Bush administration, the appeals court limited its review and used standards that are most favorable to the Bush administration - standards deemed so deficient that the U.S. Supreme Court, earlier this month, said they are constitutionally inadequate to protect detainee rights.

That decision, however, has not yet had time to play out, so today's ruling should have been a slam dunk for the Bush administration since it involved a procedure with few rights for the detainees. What's more, a majority of the appeals court judges are Reagan and Bush appointees who in the past have been sympathetic to the administration's Guantanamo regimen. And still, the administration lost unanimously.

In a brief order today, the three-judge appeals court panel said the detainee, a Chinese Muslim named Huzaifa Parhat, must be released, transferred to another country or, if he's not, he has the right to seek release immediately in federal court under the Supreme Court's most recent decision.

Sabin Willett represents Parhat.

Mr. SABIN WILLETT (Huzaifa Parhat's Counsel): You have a unanimous rebuke of this administration for holding, for seven years, in this prison somebody who's not an enemy combatant. And I would add that whoever may be listening to you now knows the answer for this case, but Parhat doesn't, because he's in solitary confinement today and we can't tell him. We can't even get him out of solitary confinement.

TOTENBERG: Parhat is one of about 18 Chinese Muslims known as Uighurs who are at Guantanamo in a section of the prison where each man is in solitary. Five additional members of their group have been released from Guantanamo, four sent to Albania and one to Sweden because they would be persecuted if returned to China. The group are all political opponents of the Chinese government, advocates for independence of their far northwestern part of China.

The Uighurs were not designated as a terrorist group until 2002 when the State Department agreed to put the group on a watch list at the request of the Chinese, and their lawyers say that if no other country will take them in, they should be set free in the United States.

According to lawyers for the men, the group is anti-Communist and sympathetic to the U.S. The lawyers say the men were all turned over to U.S. authorities in Afghanistan for bounty. The U.S., in Parhat's case, has maintained that he and the other Uighurs were at an al-Qaida-related training camp. That's not true, says lawyer Sabin Willett.

Mr. WILLETT: It's true that they were in Afghanistan. It's true that they were together in a village. It's not true that it's some sort of al-Qaida camp. And the best evidence I can give you of that is that five other Uighurs who are in Albania and Sweden were at the same place. And the military said they weren't enemy combatants.

TOTENBERG: The appeals court apparently agreed with that assessment. The court's opinion has not been released pending classification review. But the conservative makeup of the panel, the unanimity of the decision, and the government's admission in other proceedings that the Uighurs are not terrorists all make this case big trouble for the administration. A Justice Department spokesman said this afternoon the department is reviewing its options.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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