By Josh White and Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
A federal appeals court in Washington has invalidated the Bush administration's finding that a detainee held for more than six years in the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba is an "enemy combatant," and has ordered the government to release him, transfer him or offer him a new hearing.
In a ruling decided Friday but released yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that Huzaifa Parhat, an ethnic Chinese Uighur captured during the early stages of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, was inappropriately designated an enemy combatant at a hearing before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal.
The case is the first successful appeal of a detainee's designation as an enemy combatant at Guantanamo. The review by the court was part of a process established by Congress in the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which allows the appeal of tribunal decisions.
Parhat and 16 other Uighurs currently held at Guantanamo have long maintained their innocence. The Uighurs were accused of joining a Muslim separatist group in western China that the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization, though the group has not engaged in any conflict with the United States.
Parhat, 37, petitioned the court to review the evidence in his case. U.S. government officials have argued that he trained at a camp in Afghanistan and worked with al-Qaeda terrorists, but Defense Department officials have long agreed that Parhat and other Uighurs should not be detained.
U.S. officials have had difficulty finding a country willing to accept the men but do not want to release them to their native China, where they fear they could be tortured or killed. Five Uighurs who were cleared for release were transferred to Albania in 2006.
Susan Baker Manning, a lawyer who represents Parhat, said the court's decision repudiates the "rubber-stamp" system that Congress created to hold detainees indefinitely. She said there is a "moral imperative" for the United States to free Parhat and the other Uighurs soon, and that the best option is to release them to the United States.
"The U.S. government created this problem by bringing the Uighurs to Guantanamo when there was no justification for doing so," Manning said. "The message here is that Parhat is not who the government has alleged him to be for years now. He's not an enemy combatant."
Pentagon officials declined to comment, and Erik Ablin, a Justice Department spokesman, said officials there are "reviewing the decision and considering our options."
It is unclear how broadly the ruling applies because the court released just a short summary of its opinion that covers only Parhat's status. The court's full opinion, which contains classified information, is under seal, but it appears from the order that the three-judge panel found flaws in the conduct of Parhat's tribunal.
"Enemy combatants," according to the U.S. government, are unlawful fighters such as those who have supported the Taliban or al-Qaeda in terrorist acts against the United States. The United States does not consider them prisoners of war, who typically fight for a state's military and are afforded certain legal rights.
The decision was reached by Chief Judge David B. Sentelle, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan; Judge Merrick B. Garland, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton; and Judge Thomas B. Griffith, who was appointed by President Bush.
About 180 detainees have filed challenges to their combatant status with the appeals court, and about 200 have filed habeas corpus claims in U.S. District Court. The habeas cases will be allowed to proceed, following a Supreme Court ruling this month that detainees can file such challenges. Yesterday's decision could have implications for those cases, as one of the first questions judges will have to consider is whether the detainees are enemy combatants.
"If the Parhat opinion deals with the definition of an enemy combatant, I think the law of the Circuit Court will govern the District Court in the habeas" reviews, said David J. Cynamon, who represents four detainees with petitions before the appeals court.
David H. Remes, who represents 17 detainees with pending appeals court reviews, said the order is significant because it "makes clear [the court's] view that the government can be required to transfer or release an individual if it is determined that the individual has been improperly classified as an enemy combatant ."