A federal judge in New York yesterday ordered Attorney General Janet Reno to immediately release 158 Haitian refugees from an "HIV prison camp" at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying they are being held in "the kind of indefinite detention usually reserved for spies and murderers."

Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. of the Eastern District of New York, in a 53-page ruling that strongly rebuked the Bush and Clinton administrations, also ruled that Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials acted illegally when they tried to process the Haitians' claims for asylum without allowing them legal counsel.

The Haitians were deemed credible candidates for political asylum, but are excluded from U.S. entry because immigrants with the virus that causes AIDS are banned. For as long as 20 months, they have languished inside the dusty, barbed-wire encampment under U.S. military guard even though they "are neither criminals nor national security risks," Johnson wrote.

"Some are pregnant mothers and others are children. Simply put, they are merely the unfortunate victims of a fatal disease." Denying their release, Johnson wrote, has been an "abuse of discretion" by the government.

The 158 refugees include 143 HIV-positive adults, two HIV-negative adults and 13 minors who have not been tested. Of the 30 women at the camp, two are pregnant, said Air Force Capt. Jamie Scearse, a military spokeswoman.

Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights spoke by phone to the refugees' leader in Guantanamo yesterday and said the Haitians were "overjoyed, screaming, hollering" upon learning of Johnson's order.

The Guantanamo refugees were among tens of thousands of Haitians who fled the island in rickety or overcrowded vessels after military leaders overthrew the country's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in September 1991.

While most of the approximately 37,000 fleeing Haitians were returned to Haiti or, in one-third of the cases, allowed preliminary asylum in the United States, the small group of Haitian refugees here became the focus of a legal battle over whether the United States had a right to change the rules of immigration processing and hold the refugees indefinitely because they were HIV-positive.

As a candidate, Bill Clinton said he would admit the Haitian refugees at Guantanamo and change U.S. policy to allow in HIV-positive immigrants. As president, however, Clinton has stuck with the Bush administration's policies and said virtually nothing about the fate of the Haitians, who have waged hunger strikes and recently made a suicide pact, according to Robert Rubin of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

Neither White House nor Justice Department officials had an immediate comment yesterday on the court order beyond saying that it is under review.

A Justice official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the government is likely to comply with the judge's order to free the Haitians, but still appeal its right to process asylum applicants outside the territorial United States without having to go through refugee lawyers.

"It would be ironic if the Justice Department would send FBI agents to Waco to free children and then appeal to keep children in detention" at Guantanamo, said Harold Hongju Koh, one of the Haitians' attorneys.

"I think this administration and this country have two different attitudes toward the Haitians," he said. "There's a protective, stingy attitude that fears immigrants and disease and is concerned only about our economic well-being, and there's a nobler instinct which still believes in the Statue of Liberty and the right of refugees to seek asylum. And the question is: Which of these instincts is going to take command at this point?"

According to Johnson's order, the Haitians are not to be sent back to Haiti. Many have family members in the United States, lawyers said, and numerous charitable and refugee organizations have said they will place those who do not.

The number of HIV-positive Haitians held at Guantanamo has been slowly dwindling as those who grow ill have been transferred to the United States for medical care. In March, Johnson ordered the government to admit about 50 refugees who had grown sick with AIDS.

In a case that outraged Haitian refugee advocates, Haitian Joel Saintil -- whose release had been advocated by doctors at Guantanamo for months because of his declining health -- died in Miami a few days after finally being released.

Johnson yesterday criticized the government for acknowledging that its medical facilities at Guantanamo are not sufficient to care for AIDS patients while repeatedly refusing to bring sick refugees to this country for better care.

"The court was disturbed to hear the testimony of Duane 'Duke' Austin," an INS spokesman, "who reportedly remarked to the press with regard to the Haitians with AIDS held on Guantanamo, 'They're going to die anyway,' " Johnson wrote.

"It is outrageous, callous and reprehensible that defendant INS finds no value in providing adequate medical care even when a patient's illness is fatal," Johnson added.