Guantánamo detainee, considered an enemy by both sides, is ordered freed

A federal judge orders release of a Syrian national who Al Qaeda suspected was a US spy.

Brennan Linsley/AP
In this file photo taken May 13, the sun rises over the Guantánamo detention facility at dawn, at the Guantánamo Bay US Naval Base, Cuba.

Almost all detainees at the US terrorism prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, claim they are innocents being wrongfully held. But Abdulrahim Al Janko has a unique argument in that regard – and it won him his freedom.

In January 2002, US military forces found him in a notorious Afghan prison where Al Qaeda and Taliban officials allegedly tortured him for 18 months because they suspected he was an American spy.

Mr. Janko was anxious to provide information about Al Qaeda human rights violations to the Americans who liberated him. Instead, he was sent to Guantánamo, where he faced another round of harsh interrogation techniques – this time by Americans who suspected he was an Al Qaeda loyalist.

Now, after 7-1/2 years at Guantánamo, Mr. Janko may soon be a free man.

On Monday, a federal judge in Washington ordered Janko released. He instructed the US government "to take all necessary and appropriate diplomatic steps to facilitate [Janko's] release forthwith."

In the jargon of a Guantánamo habeas corpus challenge, that is a grand-slam home run for a detainee and his lawyers.

Does Janko know yet?

Janko was supposed to be allowed to listen to the ruling live via telephone from Guantánamo. But the line went dead before the announcement.

"I am hoping he's gotten the word, but I can't confirm that," said one of Janko's lawyers, Stephen Sady, chief deputy federal public defender in Portland, Ore., on Tuesday. "We're trying to set up something."

Janko is a Syrian national who lived with his family in the United Arab Emirates. In 2000, after a dispute with his father, he went to Afghanistan and spent 18 days in an Al Qaeda training camp before being accused of spying for the US. Later, he was sent by US officials to Guantánamo.

Janko's lawyers waged a multiyear effort to win his release. They argued that their client could not be detained as an enemy combatant because, after his brutal treatment, he considered Al Qaeda to be the enemy.

Government lawyers insisted that Janko's initial contacts in Afghanistan with Taliban and Al Qaeda officials (before he was accused of spying and tortured) were enough to justify his indefinite detention at Guantánamo.

US position 'defies common sense'

In his ruling, US District Judge Richard Leon said the government's position "defies common sense."

Justice Department lawyers under both Presidents Bush and Obama said Janko's extreme treatment by Al Qaeda and the Taliban was not sufficient to vitiate any prior relationship he had with those organizations.

"I disagree!" Judge Leon wrote in a 13-page declassified version of his release order. He said the evidence "overwhelmingly leads this court to conclude that the relationship that existed in 2000 – such as it was – no longer existed whatsoever in 2002 when Janko was taken into [US] custody."

That means, according to the judge, US forces had no legal authority to detain Janko as an enemy combatant in 2002, or to continue holding him in 2009.

Judge Leon said any relationship between Janko and Al Qaeda was, at best, in its formative stage in 2000. "To say the least, five days at a guesthouse in Kabul combined with 18 days at a training camp does not add up to a long-standing bond of brotherhood," Leon wrote.

Janko's lawyer said the case highlights the importance of independent judicial review.

"Mr. Janko and other Guantánamo detainees have proved to be innocent victims of fear and errors, not the worst of the worst," Mr. Sady said.

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