Saturday, March 12, 2005

American Judge Sympathizes with Terrorists

New York Times: A federal judge on Saturday prohibited the government from transferring 13 Yemeni prisoners from the military's detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, until a hearing could be held on their lawyers' fear that they might face torture if sent to another country.

The ruling by Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of United States District Court was the first action on at least five emergency petitions filed since Friday by lawyers for Guantánamo detainees after they learned from news reports that the government is seeking to transfer hundreds of prisoners to their home countries.

"We're relieved," said Marc Falkoff, a lawyer for the Yemenis. "If they were moved, the jurisdiction of the court over the case would effectively be dissolved."

Barbara Olshansky, deputy director for litigation at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who helped coordinate the detainees' legal representation, said she expected lawyers for all the detainees to file similar actions by Sunday. She said she planned to seek an order on behalf of several hundred detainees whose names are not known to the lawyers.

The judge's order puts at least a temporary roadblock in the way of the administration's plans to transfer at least half of the 540 detainees at Guantánamo to prisons in other countries, chiefly Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen.

John Nowacki, a Justice Department spokesman, said late Saturday that government lawyers were reviewing the ruling and would have no immediate comment.

The government argues that all the prisoners were members of the Qaeda terrorist network or the Taliban in Afghanistan, or have ties to those groups. Mr. Falkoff said that after talking to his clients during two weeklong visits to the detention center and reviewing government documents, he did not believe they were terrorists.

"I'm personally convinced they should not be detained anywhere," he said. He said he believed one was an aid worker, another was a medic and a third was a 17-year-old who had traveled to Afghanistan to teach children the Koran. He acknowledged that he did not have independent corroboration for their stories.

The ruling bans any transfer of the Yemenis until a hearing can be held on their lawyers' request for at least 30 days' notice before any transfer takes place. Ms. Olshansky said the notice would permit the lawyers to determine whether their clients willingly accepted the transfer to a prison in their home countries, or whether they feared they would be tortured or indefinitely detained without trial.

"We want to find out where they're being sent and ask them if they want to go there," she said. "If the answer is yes, fine."

To underscore the urgent legal brinksmanship involved, Mr. Falkoff said he had learned from another lawyer that one detainee was being flown to Turkey, his home country, on Saturday night. Mr. Falkoff said he did not know whether the prisoner opposed the transfer.