U.S. frees 1st captive since ruling

Swede leaves Navy base a week after high court affirms detainees' rights

July 09, 2004|By E.A. Torriero | E.A. Torriero,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - As the United States freed the first detainee since last week's Supreme Court ruling that such individuals have a right to take their cases to court, the Navy secretary arrived here yesterday to oversee a process that could result in the release of dozens more prisoners in coming weeks.

Mehdi-Muhammed Ghezali, a 25-year-old Swede, was whisked away under heavy security by a Swedish charter plane in the middle of the night. He was captured in Pakistan in the company of Taliban fighters in 2001 and had been held in secret since January 2002. Ghezali was free in Stockholm last night.

"It feels like a dream," Ghezali's father, Mehdi Ghezali, told reporters in Sweden, where he has been on intermittent hunger strikes to draw attention to the case. "I can't believe it is true."

Ghezali's release, the first here since March, comes as the Pentagon is scrambling to provide due process for nearly 600 inmates from 42 countries being detained and interrogated as terrorist suspects.

Officials at the U.S. Navy base here said preparations are being made to bring prisoners, shackled and wearing orange uniforms, to a makeshift hearing room within the barbed-wire confines of the prison camps. Most have been held without access to counsel or hearings for two years or longer because the Bush administration has classified them as enemy combatants.

Aided by a military escort, the prisoners will be able to challenge their detention as enemy combatants, the administration announced Wednesday. A three-person Pentagon panel, including a military attorney, will recommend by July 17 their release, further investigation or the filing of charges against them in a military tribunal.

"I'm here to start the process," Navy Secretary Gordon R. England said yesterday after landing here. He added that specifics of the hearing plans would be announced in coming days.

For more than a year, Guantanamo commanders have been asking the Pentagon to release more than 150 prisoners they no longer deem a threat to U.S. interests. Many of those individuals are being held at the only minimum-security camp in the Guantanamo complex.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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