Federal judge orders release of Guantanamo Bay detainee

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

In an opinion released Friday, a federal judge ruled that the government cannot continue to hold a Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainee simply because it fears he will renew his ties with al-Qaeda or commit unlawful acts.

U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson ruled that Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian, must be released from custody because the government was unable to prove that at the time of his capture he was part of al-Qaeda or was providing any support to the organization.

Slahi is among the most high-profile detainees at the military prison. He is suspected to have had incriminating ties to some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers as well as alleged al-Qaeda operatives on three continents, including a brother-in-law who was one of Osama bin Laden's spiritual advisers. Slahi was subject to brutal interrogation, including death threats, at Guantanamo Bay, a Senate investigation found.

Slahi later cooperated with his interrogators, providing material on terrorism suspects in Europe. He is housed in a special compound at Guantanamo Bay as a reward and for protection.

Robertson found in his opinion that Slahi, who did swear loyalty to al-Qaeda in the early 1990s and may have remained a sympathizer, was providing no support to the organization at the time of his capture in late 2001. The judge also found that Slahi's contacts with various terrorism suspects in the decade before his capture "are too brief and shallow to serve as an independent basis for detention."

The 9/11 Commission Report found that Slahi directed two of the hijackers and a key operative in the plot to go to Afghanistan in 1999. But the judge said the evidence presented in court yielded only the finding that Slahi hosted three men for one night at his home in Germany and that one of them was Ramzi Binalshibh, a key figure in the plot.

"The government's problem is that its proof that [Slahi] gave material support to terrorists is so attenuated, or so tainted by coercion and mistreatment, or so classified, that it cannot support a successful criminal prosecution," Robertson wrote. "Nevertheless, the government wants to hold [Slahi] indefinitely, because of its concern that he might renew his oath to al-Qaeda and become a terrorist upon his release."

Robertson said that such a fear may be "well-founded," but that a "habeas court may not permit a man to be held indefinitely upon suspicion." The judge noted that the government had abandoned the theory that Slahi had aided in the Sept. 11 attacks, and that, therefore, he was not detainable under Congress's 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.

"It is well past time for him to go home," said Nancy Hollander, Slahi's attorney.

The government has filed a notice that it plans to appeal Robertson's decision.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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