U.S. to release an American caught in fight with Taliban

Move marks a reversal in White House policy on enemy combatants

September 23, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration yesterday abandoned an effort to hold on to a U.S. citizen captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan after spending nearly three years fighting to keep him in custody.

Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said the military will release Louisiana-born Yaser Hamdi, 23, from the Consolidated Naval Brig in South Carolina as soon as they can arrange transportation and send him back to Saudi Arabia where he has lived since he was a toddler.

"The United States has no interest in detaining enemy combatants beyond the point that they pose a threat to the U.S. and our allies," Corallo said in a statement.

The move is a surprising about-face for the administration, which has fought unrelenting criticism from civil liberties groups that U.S. officials were violating the basic tenets of the Constitution by holding a U.S. citizen indefinitely without charges. Hamdi had been held largely incommunicado, without access to the courts or a lawyer.

Corallo said Hamdi must renounce his citizenship, abide by travel restrictions and be "subject to strict conditions that ensure the interests of the United States and our national security."

But for all purposes, Hamdi will be a free. Saudi Embassy officials said they were unaware of any charges against him and said there is no reason why he would be taken into custody.

"Our position is, any Saudi citizen is welcome to come home," said Saudi embassy spokesman, Nail al-Jubeir, adding that the Saudi government did not pressure the United States to release Hamdi.

Yesterday, federal public defender Frank Dunham, who argued on Hamdi's behalf, said in a statement, "I am gratified at the prospect that Mr. Hamdi's return to Saudi Arabia and his family is now only days away."

The decision ends a protracted legal battle that has wound through the federal courts since 2002. The Supreme Court dealt the administration a substantial setback in June when it found Hamdi had a right to challenge his detention in the U.S. court system and sent the case to the lower courts.

The court also sent the only other case involving a U.S. citizen held without charges as an enemy combatant - that of former Chicago gang member Jose Padilla - back to the lower courts because the case had been filed in the wrong jurisdiction. Padilla is still in custody, accused the Justice Department of plotting to launch a "dirty bomb" attack.

Until those rulings, federal prosecutors had maintained that President Bush had executive authority to deem anyone an "enemy combatant" in the interests of national security. That authority, government lawyers argued, could not be challenged by the combatant, the courts or Congress.

Just five months ago, Deputy Solicitor General Paul D. Clement told the justices, "No principle of the law or logic requires the United States to release an individual from detention so that he can rejoin the battle."

Justice officials yesterday disputed that Hamdi's release would allow that to happen. One official said the restrictions on Hamdi's travel would prevent any return to the battlefield and said they do not think Hamdi poses a threat to the United States. Hamdi is prohibited from visiting Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Some legal analysts who have watched the Hamdi case closely, said they think the government released him because they don't have a criminal case to bring against him to keep him in custody.

"This is an obvious and glaring contradiction," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who has argued several national security cases.

"Ultimately the Hamdi gambit has proved to be a colossal failure for the administration," he said. "They lost legal ground [with the Supreme Court ruling], lost enormous amounts of time and money litigating this and they still can't show Hamdi presents any significant danger."

Hamdi's release also appears somewhat at odds with the government's stance on John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" raised in affluent Marin County, Calif., who was captured in almost identical circumstances. U.S. military forces took Lindh, also 23, into custody shortly after the Taliban forces he was with surrendered to the Northern Alliance in November 2001.

Lindh, though, was charged criminally and took a plea agreement to spend 20 years in federal prison without parole.

Hamdi, who born in Baton Rouge, La., moved to Saudi Arabia with his Saudi parents when he was a toddler. He speaks and reads fluent English.

Hamdi's father maintains that his son went to do relief work in Afghanistan, not to fight with the Taliban. The father has said Hamdi arrived in the country one or two months before the Sept. 11 attacks and wouldn't have had enough time to complete military training.

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