(Washington, DC, November 20, 2008) - The Bush administration should immediately arrange for the return to Bosnia of five detainees ordered freed by a US federal court, Human Rights Watch said today. The court today found that the government did not have evidence to justify detaining the five men, who are currently in US military custody at Guantanamo Bay.
The court's ruling was the first to carry out the Supreme Court's June 2007 decision in Boumediene v. Bush that detainees at Guantanamo have the right to challenge in federal court the legality of their detention.
"Today, the courts have restored checks and balances to US government detentions," said Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. "After seven long years, the courts have finally been able rule on the Bush administration's claim of unchecked authority to detain."
The court ordered the release of five of the petitioners in the case, all of whom have been held without charge for nearly seven years, but found that the government had evidence to justify the continued imprisonment of a sixth detainee, Belkacem Bensayah. Human Rights Watch said that this detainee should be charged in federal court or released.
The petitioners were six Bosnian-Algerians - all plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case - who were initially arrested in Bosnia-Herzegovina on suspicion of plotting to bomb the US Embassy in Sarajevo in late 2001. Although the US government has since dropped those allegations, it has continued to claim that all six men traveled to Afghanistan to join hostile actions against the United States and that they could therefore be legitimately detained as "enemy combatants."
But the federal court was not persuaded by the evidence against five of the men, which consisted of a single classified document from an unnamed source. The court ruled, however, that Bensayah had acted as a facilitator for al Qaeda and that the government could continue to detain him without charge. Bensayah's attorneys said that they would appeal the ruling.
Human Rights Watch has long objected to the government's claim that anyone accused of supporting al Qaeda anywhere in the world can be held without charge, and urged the administration to bring criminal charges against any detainee implicated in planning or carrying out acts of terrorism.
"There is no justification for continuing to hold Bensayeh without charge," Daskal said. "If he aided al Qaeda, he should be tried in federal court."
The federal judge hearing the case made clear that he expected the government to act expeditiously to secure the release of the five detainees he ordered freed. He also took the highly unusual step of urging the government to forgo an appeal of the ruling, saying that "seven years is enough."
"These men have been in Guantanamo for seven years too long," Daskal said. "The Bush administration should now heed the court's ruling and immediately arrange their return to Bosnia."