U.S. to Free 'Enemy Combatant,' Bowing to Supreme
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
Published: September 23, 2004
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 22 - Yaser E. Hamdi, an American citizen captured in
Afghanistan and once deemed so dangerous that the American military held
him incommunicado for more than two years as an enemy combatant, will be
freed and allowed to return to Saudi Arabia in the next few days,
officials said Wednesday.
After weeks of negotiations over his release, lawyers for the Justice
Department and Mr. Hamdi announced an agreement requiring him to
renounce his American citizenship. The agreement also bars him from
leaving Saudi Arabia for a time and requires him to report possible
terrorist activity, his lawyer said, although legal analysts said the
arrangement would be difficult for the United States to enforce.
The agreement was driven by a Supreme Court decision in June. In the
ruling, a major setback for the Bush administration, the court found
that Mr. Hamdi and enemy combatants like him had to be given the chance
to challenge their detention. The court declared that "a state of war is
not a blank check for the president." The administration decided that
rather than give Mr. Hamdi a hearing, it would simply negotiate his
Mr. Hamdi will probably be flown back to Saudi Arabia on an American
military aircraft by early next week, said a government official who
asked not to be identified. Although Mr. Hamdi was born in 1980 in
Louisiana, where his father worked for an oil company, the family left
the United States when he was a toddler and returned to Saudi Arabia. He
lived there most of his life, and most of his family remains there.
The agreement freeing Mr. Hamdi reflects a striking reversal in a hotly
debated test case regarding the limits of the Bush administration's
powers in its pursuit of terror suspects.
Mr. Hamdi was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan in late 2001
after the fall of the Taliban and imprisoned by the American military,
first at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and most recently in a Navy brig in
South Carolina. But the military gave few details about his suspected
links to the Taliban, and the discovery that he was born in Louisiana
and retained his American citizenship set off a public debate about his
rights to due process and the government's power to incarcerate
prisoners in wartime.
The Bush administration declared Mr. Hamdi an enemy combatant and denied
him the chance to contest the accusations against him at a judicial
hearing. He has been held in solitary confinement and was denied access
to a lawyer until recently, in part because of what officials described
as national security concerns.
In a statement Wednesday announcing the agreement to free Mr. Hamdi, the
Justice Department said: "Like many other enemy combatants captured and
detained by U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan who have been subsequently
released, the United States has determined that Mr. Hamdi could be
transferred out of United States custody subject to strict conditions
that ensure the interests of the United States and our national
security. As we have repeatedly stated, 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.''
One final point of discussion resulted in the agreement to have Mr.
Hamdi renounce any claims to his American citizenship upon his arrival
in Saudi Arabia, where he remains a citizen.
The citizenship issue was not a terribly important one to Mr. Hamdi, his
lawyer, Frank W. Dunham Jr., said in an interview. "He has always
thought of himself as a Saudi citizen, and he wasn't willing to spend an
extra day in jail over it," Mr. Dunham said.
Travel arrangements for Mr. Hamdi's return are still being completed,
officials said. But Mr. Dunham said that "as long as they put him in
civilian clothes and don't put a bag over his head and give him some ice
cream for the ride, I don't care how they get him back there."
When Mr. Hamdi was told in recent days that he was on the verge of
release, he smiled and said, "That's what I'm talking about!" Mr. Dunham
Mr. Hamdi will also have to abide by what the Justice Department
described as "strict travel restrictions" in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Dunham
said the agreement required Mr. Hamdi to remain within Saudi Arabia for
a set period before being allowed to travel outside the country, but he
would not discuss precise details because the pact has not yet been
filed in federal court. Saudi officials were unavailable for comment on
the agreement late Wednesday.
Mr. Hamdi would also be obligated to report certain suspicious activity,
Mr. Dunham said. "If somebody recruits him to become a terrorist, he's
got to tell somebody that," he said.
Civil liberties advocates and some legal analysts said Mr. Hamdi's
release underscored weaknesses in the administration's rationale for
locking up terror suspects and could have implications for other
suspects held in Cuba and elsewhere.
"It's quite something for the government to declare this person one of
the worst of the worst, hold him for almost three years and then, when
they're told by the Supreme Court to give him a fair hearing, turn
around and give up,'' said David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown
University who has been critical of the administration.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties
Union, added in an interview that "this clearly shows that the
government was not able to meet the burden of proof that the Supreme
Court had set for it, and rather than risk further embarrassment in a
failed prosecution, they've decided to just send him out of the
"The whole case makes you wonder," he added, "why was he really being
held in the first place?"
Espionage Charge Dropped
SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 22 (AP) - A military judge dropped an espionage
charge on Wednesday against Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi, an
interpreter accused of spying at the camp for terror detainees at
Guantánamo Bay. The decision all but resolved a case that once carried
the potential for the death penalty.
It was the third Guantánamo spy case to fall apart this year. A fourth
case is pending in Boston.
The airman pleaded guilty to four "minor infractions," his lawyer,
Donald Rehkopf Jr., said. Specifically, the lawyer said, he admitted
taking two photographs and lying about taking those pictures. He also
mishandled classified documents, which led to a fourth guilty plea, to a
charge of "conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline."
Airman al-Halabi, 25, a naturalized American born in Syria, was a supply
clerk at Travis Air Force Base in California until the military's demand
for Arabic speakers increased sharply and he was sent to Cuba for
temporary duty. He was arrested in July 2003 as he headed to Syria to