MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. A significant decision today regarding five men who have spent seven years at Guantanamo - a federal judge ordered them released. The judge, Richard Leon, who happens to be a conservative appointed by President Bush, found there was no evidence to justify the men's detentions. They are all native-born Algerians who moved to Bosnia in the early 1990s. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has our story.
NINA TOTENBERG: This was the first ruling since the Supreme Court last June declared detainees at Guantanamo have a right under the U.S. constitution to challenge the basis for their indefinite detention. Judge Leon's decision today had particular force, not only because he is a conservative Bush appointee, but because he had previously sided with the government, declaring that the men had no right to challenge their detentions. Indeed, it was his earlier ruling that eventually got to the Supreme Court and was reversed by a five-to-four vote.
Writing for the Supreme Court majority last June, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the system set up by the Bush administration and ratified by Congress was fraught with the risk of error because the detainees had no right to counsel, no meaningful way of knowing what the allegations against them were, and no chance to rebut evidence against them.
These cases ruled on today were the first to provide all of those safeguards. And in five of the six cases, Judge Leon concluded there simply was no corroborated evidence against the men and that, indeed, the sole basis for their detention was a single, uncorroborated piece of raw intelligence. In the case of the sixth man, however, he concluded there was corroboration and that his detention is justified.
Reading his opinion from the bench, Judge Leon did something few remember any judge doing. He noted that the government is within its rights to appeal his order, but he urged what he called the senior leadership of the government not to. Seven years of waiting for our legal system to give these men an answer, he said, is long enough.
The courtroom scene was dramatic, with the detainees hooked up by phone at Guantanamo and interpreters there to translate the proceedings. Sitting in Washington before Judge Leon was a phalanx of lawyers who have spent thousands of hours on this case, including Seth Waxman who served as the government's chief appellate lawyer in the Clinton administration and argued the Bosnians' case in the Supreme Court.
Mr. SETH WAXMAN (Attorney, WilmerHale): There was a lot of eye-wiping and handkerchief-reaching. And, I mean, it was very emotional. These guys have been held for seven years following their detention investigation in Sarajevo.
TOTENBERG: Indeed, the facts of the cases ruled on today are extraordinary, even in the context of Guantanamo. The men were arrested in their homes in Bosnia shortly after 9/11. U.S. officials said they were involved in a plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy. Bosnian authorities then joined with Interpol and the U.S. to conduct a three-month investigation, at the end of which the Bosnian Supreme Court, with the concurrence of the Bosnian prosecutor, ruled that the charges were not supported by the evidence. The court ordered the men released. But they were quickly rearrested, turned over to the U.S. and taken to Guantanamo, where they have remained since.
With this as the first of many Guantanamo cases due to be reviewed by federal judges in the coming months, today's ruling will likely be seen as a signal to other judges to be skeptical of the government's representations. In fact, the case ruled on today has become a prime example of the moving target the government has presented as legal justification for many of the detentions. President Bush, in his State of the Union address in 2002, outlined the basis for holding the Bosnians.
(Soundbite of President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address)
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our soldiers, working with the Bosnian government, seized terrorists who were plotting to bomb our embassy.
TOTENBERG: The government, however, later abandoned this claim and moved on to a number of other claims which similarly were later withdrawn when they could not be substantiated. A Justice Department spokesman declined to say today whether the government would appeal the ruling. The Bosnian government in the past has said it is willing to allow these detainees to come back to their homes where their wives and children still live. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.