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The New York Times reports that in rendering his decision, Judge Richard Leon said Thursday the government's evidence, which he called "a classified document from an unnamed source," was insufficient to show the five detainees' link to Al Qaeda.
"To rest on so thin a reed would be inconsistent with this court's obligation," Judge 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 terrorist commanders.
The judge also ruled that a sixth Algerian man was being lawfully detained because he was a facilitator for Al Qaeda, arranging travel for others to fight the United States, and planned to become a fighter himself.
The detainees are part of a group of six Algerians who were seized in Bosnia in 2001 and charged with attempting to blow up the US embassy there. The government later dropped that charge, and instead accused them of plans to go to Afghanistan to fight US forces there. Judge Leon ruled that the government had shown sufficient evidence to continue holding one of the six, Belkacem Bensayah.
Bloomberg reports that the detainees' lawyers praised the court's decision, while the government is mulling an appeal.
"We absolutely expected this day to come," Stephen Oleskey, the lead [counsel] for the petitioners, told reporters outside the courthouse after the hearing. "It should not have taken this long."
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement the department was pleased that Bensayah can continue to be held and that it is reviewing the decision regarding the other five men.
"Today's decision is perhaps an understandable consequence of the fact that neither the Supreme Court nor Congress has provided rules" on how the cases should proceed, Carr said. He said Congress should enact rules so the cases can be handled "in a way that is fair to the detainee but that allows the government to present its case without imperiling national security."
The order to free the five detainees was made possible by a US Supreme Court ruling in June that detainees have the right to challenge open-ended detentions in court, The Christian Science Monitor reported. The 5 to 4 decision struck down as unconstitutional a portion of the 2006 Military Commissions Act that barred federal judges from hearing the appeals of detainees like those held in Guantánamo. The Bush administration had argued that as "enemy combatants," detainees had no right to challenge their detentions in US court.