Guantanamo Detainee Gets Reprieve

Guantanamo Detainee Gets Reprieve

Ech-Chorouk, 15 March, 2008 04:25:00 Source : The Associated Press

A federal appeals court with a history of ruling against Guantanamo Bay detainees handed one of them a reprieve Friday in his fight against the Bush administration’s effort to return him to Algeria, where he says he probably would be tortured.
Ahmed Belbacha deserves to have his case returned to a federal judge for review, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said in a 2-1 decision.

Though it is a small step for a single detainee, the ruling marks the second time in eight months the appeals court has gone against the Bush administration on an important Guantanamo Bay issue — a development the government and congressional Republicans had not planned on.

The appeals judges were supposed to be a bulwark against the detainees’ efforts to gain full access to civilian courts. The administration and its supporters on Capitol Hill rewrote federal law in a way that funnels detainees to the appeals court, where they were to receive quick, cursory reviews of military panel findings declaring them enemy combatants. That status enables the government to hold them indefinitely.

Last July, the appeals court and its chief judge, Reagan-era appointee Douglas Ginsburg, surprised the administration.

The appeals court rejected the Bush administration’s plan to limit what judges and the detainees’ attorneys can review when considering whether the military panels acted appropriately.

It was a turnabout for an appeals court that since the September 2001 terrorist attacks has denied federal court access for any combatants held outside the United States and supported the administration’s proposed system of military commission trials.

On Friday, it was Ginsburg again writing the court’s opinion, noting as he sided with Belbacha that the saga of the detainees is once again at a critical juncture.

The Supreme Court is considering whether detainees held in the detention center at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, may challenge their confinement in civilian courts.

The Bush administration might be without authority to transfer Belbacha to Algeria if the Supreme Court rules in the detainees’ favor and if a judge concludes that Belbacha’s detention is unlawful, the appeals court stated.

The probability of Belbacha’s prevailing « is far from clear, » Ginsburg wrote. « But in light of the seriousness of the harm he claims to face, namely, torture, » Belbacha’s case deserves further consideration, the chief judge added. Siding with Ginsburg was Judge Thomas Griffith, who began serving on the appeals court in 2005 following his appointment by President Bush.

In dissent, Judge A. Raymond Randolph said the court should have simply delayed proceeding with the Belbacha case and blocked his transfer rather than sending the matter back to a U.S. District Court.

What’s significant, said Belbacha’s lawyer, David Remes, is that the appeals court previously held it didn’t have any jurisdiction over the prisoners’ cases and now it has held that it can exercise jurisdiction over their cases until the Supreme Court rules.

The Justice Department said it was reviewing the appeals court decision.

Belbacha contends that if he ends up back in his home country of Algeria, his life would be in danger, both from the government and from al-Qaida.

Belbacha says his problems began when he was recalled for a second term of military service in the Algerian army, prompting death threats against him by terrorists in Groupe Islamique Armee, then at the height of a violent campaign for an Islamic Algeria.

Belbacha never reported for duty but says the Islamic group visited his home at least twice and threatened him and his family. He left the country, traveling to France, England, Pakistan and Afghanistan before being brought to Guantanamo Bay.