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Release of Prisoner 'Imminent,' U.S. Says

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2004; Page A03

The Justice Department said yesterday that "enemy combatant" Yaser Esam Hamdi's release is imminent and asked a federal judge for an additional week to work out final details of a settlement with Hamdi's attorneys.

Hamdi, who has been held incommunicado in Navy brigs for two years after being captured with Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan in 2001, probably will be sent to Saudi Arabia, prosecutors said in a filing in U.S. District Court in Norfolk. Hamdi is a U.S. citizen, but he spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia, where his family lives.

Yaser Hamdi, a U.S. citizen, has been held since 2001. (AP File Photo)

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U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar has yet to rule on the request for a seven-day stay of the proceedings against Hamdi, which would put off a federal court hearing scheduled for Monday. Doumar last week granted a separate request for a delay but ordered the government to produce Hamdi at Monday's hearing.

Neither Hamdi nor a second U.S. citizen held as an enemy combatant -- Jose Padilla, who is accused of plotting to set off a radiological bomb in the United States -- has been seen publicly since being detained. The Hamdi case has been a major test in the war on terrorism, with the Bush administration refusing to allow Hamdi to challenge his detention and holding him for much of the past two years without access to a lawyer. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that, as a U.S. citizen, Hamdi must have access to the U.S. legal system.

Prosecutors and Hamdi's attorneys revealed this month that they were nearing a deal to release Hamdi. People familiar with the negotiations have said that the terms of release are likely to include Hamdi renouncing his U.S. citizenship and accepting travel restrictions and some monitoring by Saudi officials. In addition, he may have to agree not to sue the U.S. government over his detention.

In yesterday's filing, the government said those negotiations "have continued steadily, and considerable progress has been made.'' The filing said that a draft agreement is being circulated and that "only the details" remain to be negotiated.

"In short, [the government] believes that an agreement in principle that will result in Hamdi's release is imminent, and can be reached within the seven-day period for which a stay is sought,'' said the document, which was signed by Justice Department officials including Paul J. McNulty, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria.

The filing cited the "extraordinary nature" of Hamdi's case, which is "fraught with complex and thorny issues" that would require the court to balance national security needs with Hamdi's constitutional rights. Bringing Hamdi to a court hearing "would serve no useful purpose given the likelihood of his imminent release and repatriation to Saudi Arabia,'' the papers said.

In their response, Hamdi's attorneys said they do not object to a seven-day delay, but they chided the government for continuing to hold Hamdi in solitary confinement after the Supreme Court decision. Federal public defender Frank W. Dunham Jr. wrote that the conditions of Hamdi's confinement are "inhumane.''

Earlier in the day, Hamdi's attorneys filed papers challenging the government to explain its detention of Hamdi, who was captured with pro-Taliban forces on the battlefield in northern Afghanistan in November 2001. He was brought to the Navy brig in Norfolk and then the Navy jail at Charleston, S.C., after it was learned that he was born in Baton Rouge, La.

The military designated Hamdi an enemy combatant and held him incommunicado, but his case entered the legal system after Dunham read about his confinement in news accounts. A series of lower-court decisions led to the Supreme Court ruling, in which all the justices except Clarence Thomas rejected the Bush administration's contention that the federal courts could exercise no supervision over such a case.

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