U.S. told to justify man's detention

As Pentagon sets hearings in Cuba, judge threatens to force release of Libyan

July 31, 2004|By Richard A. Serrano | Richard A. Serrano,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - A federal judge yesterday ordered the government to explain why a Libyan detained at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should not be released immediately - setting up a showdown next week between the court and the Bush administration over the fate of alleged enemy combatants locked up on the island.

Also yesterday, the Pentagon announced that preliminary hearings will be held next month for four other detainees, marking the first steps toward military tribunals that will be conducted in a newly built courtroom at Guantanamo Bay.

Military authorities also said they were beginning annual reviews for many of the 600 detainees in Cuba to determine whether some should be sent home, a process the Pentagon established in response to criticism that the detainees lack due process. The first such "combatant status review" was held involving an unnamed detainee. No decision was disclosed.

The developments come just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that foreign nationals held at Guantanamo Bay, as well as Americans being held as enemy combatants without charges filed against them, have the right to challenge the legality of their confinement.

In Washington, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, a Bush appointee who took the bench shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, ordered the government to explain by Tuesday why Salim Gherebi should not be released. If the government cannot show that Gherebi is a security risk, Walton said, he will order that the 46-year-old Libyan be released immediately. That would mark the first time the administration was forced to free any of the captives taken in the war on terrorism.

Stephen Yagman of Los Angeles is Gherebi's attorney but said he has never met his client or spoken to him because of strict restraints imposed by the military. He was hired by Gherebi's brother, Belaid Gherebi of San Diego. Yagman said that because of Walton's involvement in the case, the military most likely will let him visit Gherebi in Cuba.

"I want to get down there as quickly as I can, but they say it may take two to three weeks to arrange it," Yagman said.

He said that Salim Gherebi had moved to Afghanistan and was working as a mechanic there for about four years when he was captured in February 2002. Yagman denied that Gherebi was a terrorist or had fought against U.S. forces in Afghanistan after Sept. 11.

Rather, he said, Gherebi was "scooped up" after the U.S. military offered large bounties for enemy combatants.

The Justice Department filed a notice yesterday saying that the government plans to present a formal request asking the judge to dismiss his order.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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