By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2008
A Justice Department lawyer yesterday urged a federal judge to continue the detention of six Algerians at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, contending they would "take up arms" and attack Americans if released.
The accusations came during the first habeas corpus hearing ever held for a Guantanamo prisoner, a landmark in the detainees' legal saga of more than six years. The Supreme Court ruled in June that the prison's approximately 250 detainees have the right to challenge their confinements in U.S. federal courts. The six Algerians appeared before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon yesterday.
The government alleges that the six Algerians were planning to go to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces. But the detainees' lawyers said the men are innocent, never should have been confined and, after nearly seven years of captivity, should be freed. The lawyers described the detainees as hardworking family men.
"They were not found lurking in some dark basement or backyard garage, making bombs. They were not found with any weapons or explosives or any other instruments of war," said Stephen Oleskey, a lawyer representing the Algerians.
An audio link was established with the prison to allow the detainees to listen to the public portion of the opening arguments. But the transmission did not work, Leon said. The judge, clearly irked by the glitch, ordered tape recordings of the hearing shipped overnight to the facility to be played for the men.
The hearings are expected to last through next week in U.S. District Court, with a ruling as soon as Nov. 17, the judge said.
Most of the proceedings will be closed to the public because lawyers will be discussing classified material. The Algerians, five of whom had Bosnian citizenship at the time, were picked up by Bosnian authorities in October 2001 at the request of the U.S. government. U.S. officials told them at the time that the men were plotting to attack U.S. interests in the country. They were transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in January 2002.
Justice Department lawyer Nick Oldham said the government "has reliable information, credible intelligence, that these [men] planned to travel to the field of battle" and would attack U.S. interests if released.
"The United States was certainly entitled to be proactive, detaining the [men] and removing their threat," he argued, adding that they were taken into custody thanks to the work of "an intelligence operation, seven years ago, primarily in a foreign land."
Oleskey challenged the credibility of the government's case, saying the Justice Department already has withdrawn important allegations against the captives. One of those -- that they were plotting to attack the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo -- was cited by President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union Address. Oleskey added that there is also no proof the men were plotting to travel to Afghanistan, and a Bosnian investigation cleared them of any ties to terrorism.
"The government doesn't have anything approaching solid evidence of a plan," he said. "A mere plan does not make someone an enemy combatant. . . . Even loose talk about plans to join al-Qaeda or plans to travel to Afghanistan is just that: talk."