WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. judge refused to release two Guantanamo terrorism suspects on Tuesday and upheld the government’s authority to keep them, after ordering freedom last month for five prisoners whose case led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling.
Federal District Court Judge Richard Leon said in two separate rulings the government had shown enough evidence to justify holding Yemeni citizen Moath Hamza Amhed Al Alwi and Tunisian Hisham Sliti as “enemy combatants” linked to al Qaeda or Taliban forces.
The Bush administration welcomed the rulings, but the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern over potential precedents. “This decision raises serious concerns given the reliance on classified evidence and the very broad definition of detention authority that it contains,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jonathan Hafetz said.
Alwi and Sliti said the U.S. government has illegally held them for seven years at the U.S. Naval base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. About 250 terrorism suspects remain at the Guantanamo prison, and most are contesting their confinement after the Supreme Court in June ruled that they have a constitutional right to do so.
The government charges that Alwi had served as a bodyguard to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and received training at camps linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Alwi denied the accusations.
Sliti has disputed allegations that include helping to start a terrorist group and receiving military training at an al Qaeda camp.
The government believes it will have future success in upholding detentions, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd, “We’re pleased with the court’s ruling that these two individuals are being lawfully detained as enemy combatants.”
Hafetz said key evidence in the cases decided on Tuesday was presented in classified sessions. He called the detention authority too broad because the judge did not find that either man had taken up arms against the United States. Leon said it was not necessary to address that issue under the Supreme Court’s definition of enemy combatant.
Last month Leon ordered the release from Guantanamo of five Algerian-born Bosnians, on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Three of them have been returned to Bosnia so far. It was first such order under the Supreme Court’s June decision.
U.S. president-elect Barack Obama has pledged to close the Guantanamo prison, and the Pentagon has begun work on a proposal.
But the office of the U.S. Military Commissions, which is trying the terrorism suspects, outlined on Tuesday plans for January hearings in some cases of charged suspects.
They include a mental competency hearing for accused September 11 plotter Ramzi Binalshibh and a trial of Omar Khadr, a young Canadian accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan. That trial is scheduled to start on January 26, after Obama takes office on January 20.
“We’ll continue with the military commissions process at Guantanamo until we’re directed otherwise,” said a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. J. D. Gordon.
“We serve the sitting president and will continue to do so until president-elect Obama takes office, and then we will implement the policies enacted by the next administration,” he said.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman