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5 Detainees Ordered Released From Guantanamo

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A federal judge has dealt the Bush administration another setback over the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. The judge - who, by the way, was appointed by President Bush - ordered the release of five Bosnian citizens held for seven years at Guantanamo. Yesterday's ruling was the first since the Supreme Court decided the detainees have the right to go to court to challenge their detentions. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Yesterday's ruling by conservative judge Richard Leon does not bode well for the Bush administration, and it sends a warning signal to other judges here in Washington who will soon be reviewing other detainee cases from Guantanamo, a warning that the government's representations may not be entirely reliable. Judge Leon's decision involved six Bosnians who were arrested shortly after 9/11. President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union speech actually singled them out as examples of the terrorist threat.

(Soundbite of State of the Union Address, January 29, 2002)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our soldiers working with the Bosnian government seized terrorists who were plotting to bomb our embassy.

TOTENBERG: The Bosnian citizens, all born in Algeria, were arrested in their homes in Sarajevo, after U.S. officials told the Bosnian government the men were involved in a plot to blow up the U.S. embassy. Bosnian authorities then joined with Interpol and the U.S. to conduct an investigation, at the end of which the Bosnian Supreme Court, with the concurrence of the Bosnian prosecutor, ruled that the charges were not supported by the evidence. The court ordered the men released, but they were turned over to U.S. authorities and sent to Guantanamo, where they've remained ever since.

Last year, the case went to the Supreme Court, and the justices ruled that these men, and all others at Gitmo, have a constitutional right to challenge their detentions in federal court. But as Judge Leon's opinion made clear yesterday, when the men got their day in court, the evidence seemed to evaporate like the morning mist. The government long ago gave up its claim that the men had been plotting to blow up the U.S. embassy. Instead, there were other charges, some of which the government also ended up withdrawing. In one case, the government was relying on a witness who turned out to be not only a convicted felon but a person repudiated by the government itself in another case as a liar, whose testimony could not be believed.

The Bosnian case had other curiosities. The government's 60-page narrative of facts was not signed by any Justice Department lawyer. Usually, every such filing assigned by a government lawyer attesting to the government's good-faith belief in the veracity of the facts as presented. In this case, the factual narrative was filed without any signature. In the end, the government's only charge as to five of the detainees was that they had planned to go to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces there and that such a plan constituted aid to terrorists. Yesterday, though, Judge Leon ruled that there were no reliable facts to support even that allegation. The sole piece of evidence, he said, came from a single intelligence source whose reliability could not be corroborated. As to the sixth Bosnian, he said, there was enough evidence to justify his detention.

And then Judge Leon did something rare; he, for all practical purposes, pleaded with the Bush administration not to appeal his ruling. The government is certainly entitled to appeal, he said, but that would take another year and a half. And these men, he said, deserve, after seven years, not to wait any longer to go home to Bosnia, where their wives and children still live. Unlike other countries that have refused to take back cleared Guantanamo prisoners, Bosnia has said in the past it is willing to take these men back. The Bush administration now has 60 days to appeal. The appeal deadline is January 20th, Inauguration Day. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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