Yaser Esam Hamdi arrived home in Saudi Arabia yesterday, bringing an end to a philosophical and legal battle over his confinement that helped clarify the government's power to fight the war on terrorism.
Hamdi, a U.S. citizen who was held by the military as an "enemy combatant" for almost three years, landed in Saudi Arabia aboard a U.S. military aircraft early yesterday morning, the government and Hamdi's lawyer said. He was met by U.S. officials before being released to his family.
"He was happy, exuberant, like a 5-year-old kid who had just come down and looked at the presents on Christmas Day," said Federal Public Defender Frank W. Dunham Jr., who represented Hamdi and spoke to him by cell phone on the tarmac at an airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Dunham said Hamdi took off from Charleston, S.C., at 1 p.m. Sunday and landed at 6 a.m. yesterday.
Hamdi was in seclusion yesterday, his attorney said, and nobody answered the phone at his family's home despite repeated calls. The State Department said in a statement that the U.S. government "appreciates the cooperation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in facilitating this transfer."
The U.S. military captured Hamdi, 24, with pro-Taliban forces in Afghanistan in 2001. He was sent to Guantanamo Bay along with other detainees until authorities learned that he was born in Louisiana. He had been held in military brigs ever since.
Hamdi's detention in solitary confinement triggered a fierce battle that came to symbolize the larger debate over the government's anti-terror efforts, but lawyers were left yesterday to debate the legacy of his case. Prosecutors initially convinced a federal appeals court in Richmond that the military -- and not the courts -- had the sole authority to wage war and that courts should defer to battlefield judgments.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled that while the government had the authority to detain U.S. citizens as enemy combatants, Hamdi had the right to contest his detention in court. But the decision never spelled out how that challenge would work in practice -- whether Hamdi would have the same rights as other defendants, for example.
"It's clear there is authority to detain people, but otherwise the legal legacy of this case is incomplete," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
Hamdi's release also means that the government never had to explain why he was detained in the first place.
A Pentagon statement said Hamdi was released because "considerations of United States national security did not require his continued detention." The statement added that no further details were available "because of operational and security considerations."
Government attorneys justified Hamdi's detention with a Defense Department declaration that he had joined a Taliban military unit, received training and acknowledged loyalty to the Taliban. Recently, the government said Hamdi would be freed because he no longer poses a threat.
Now, Hamdi intends to finish a degree in marketing he started at a university in Saudi Arabia and enjoy his time with his family. "He just wants to move on with his life," Dunham said.
The release came after a two-week delay that Dunham said was caused by questions the Saudis had raised about the agreement to free him. The agreement subjects Hamdi to a number of conditions, including travel restrictions and requirements that he renounce terrorism and his U.S. citizenship.
"The Saudis were wondering why there were all these restrictions on someone who was never charged with anything," said Dunham, who added that the government's abrupt decision to free Hamdi showed that prosecutors "didn't have a case" that would justify his status as an enemy combatant.
It was unclear yesterday what was done to break the impasse. The Saudi Embassy in Washington was closed, and a Justice Department spokesman did not return telephone calls.
But sources familiar with the negotiations said a federal judge helped speed the process by secretly ordering the government to bring Hamdi to a hearing today in Norfolk. U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar, who had ordered previous court hearings for Hamdi, canceled today's proceedings when he learned that Hamdi had arrived in Saudi Arabia, the sources said.
Dunham said he expects the judge to issue an order shortly that dismisses the case.