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Hamdi voices innocence, joy about reunion

Man held as 'enemy combatant' now back in Saudi Arabia

Hamdi said his new freedom "feels great."
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Former U.S. detainee Yaser Hamdi breaks his silence in a CNN exclusive interview.
Saudi Arabia
Yaser Hamdi

JUBAIL, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- Saudi citizen Yaser Hamdi, recently released by the United States after being held as an enemy combatant, proclaimed his innocence and said he was happy to be with his family again during an exclusive interview with CNN.

"It feels great -- I can't really describe my feelings -- especially after meeting with my parents, the family, after more than three years being away from them," he said Wednesday from his home in the port city of Jubail.

Hamdi, a 24-year-old born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where his father had been a petroleum engineer, returned to Saudi Arabia Monday aboard a U.S. military jet from the naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina.

Hamdi had been detained since his capture by the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in December 2001 when he became the central figure in a landmark terrorism case before the Supreme Court earlier this year which dealt a setback to the Bush administration's legal approach to the war on terror.

Under the terms of his release, he was to renounce his U.S. citizenship and never travel to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Pakistan, Syria, the West Bank or Gaza. He is also required to report any intent to travel outside Saudi Arabia for the next 15 years. If accused of any wrongdoing, Hamdi is to be subject to Saudi law.

Sporting a long beard and wearing Saudi traditional dress, Hamdi told CNN he understands the feelings in the United States following the September 11, 2001, attacks, but he said it should have taken a lot less time for him to be freed.

"[I] was hoping it [my case] would reach the Supreme Court ... faster and they will look at my case because I believe that I was innocent and I was locked down for the wrong reason."

Hamdi was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001, turned over to U.S. forces by the Northern Alliance and transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a month later. Once there, officials determined he was a U.S. citizen and took him to the Navy brig in Norfolk, Virginia, in April. He was transferred to Charleston in August 2003.

Facing no criminal charges in the United States, Hamdi was barred from seeing an attorney until after two years in captivity and kept in solitary confinement.

"I didn't know what was going on -- really I didn't know anything. I was just in a big question mark, and I didn't know any answers to any questions," said Hamdi.

Hamdi's attorney, Frank Dunham, the federal public defender for eastern Virginia, challenged his client's detention as unlawful, taking the case to the Supreme Court.

The U.S. government maintains Hamdi was armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and traveling with a military unit of the Taliban, the deposed regime that gave al Qaeda safe harbor in Afghanistan, when he was captured.

The Bush administration designated Hamdi as an "enemy combatant" who was such a "grave threat to national security" that he could not be afforded the rights normally granted criminal defendants. Government officials argued his confinement was necessary to obtain all possible intelligence during wartime, including information about the enemy to help prevent possible attacks.

Dunham maintained that Hamdi was "a civilian unaffiliated with any military force" who tried unsuccessfully to leave Afghanistan within days of the September 11 attacks and that he "never engaged in, nor did he intend to engage in, an armed conflict against the United States in Afghanistan or anywhere else."

In the Wednesday interview, Hamdi gave no details of what he was doing in Afghanistan at the time of his capture.

Supreme Court decided case

The Supreme Court affirmed the right of the president to detain citizens as "enemy combatants" during a military conflict but held that such prisoners could challenge the merits of their captivity before a neutral fact-finder.

The majority opinion said war was not "a blank check" for the executive branch and that "an unchecked system of detention carries the potential to become a means for oppression and abuse of others who do not present that sort of threat."

The agreement to release Hamdi, negotiated over the last four months, precluded any such hearing.

Hamdi was supposed to be released by September 30, but the departure was delayed while U.S. and Saudi officials discussed the agreement.

Dunham said Hamdi had no problem surrendering his American citizenship.

"When you've been in solitary confinement for three years and somebody puts a piece of paper in front of you that says you can get out of jail free if you sign it, you don't really worry too much about the rest of the fine print," he said.

Hamdi was born in Louisiana, but his family moved back to Saudi Arabia when he was a child.

Others challenging detentions

Attorneys for two other enemy combatants -- so-called "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla and Qatari national Ali Saleh al-Marri -- are currently challenging their detentions in a South Carolina federal court. Both are being held in the Charleston brig.

Hamdi pleaded for faster and better attention to the cases of those in similar situations.

"My message to the American people is to take the situation of the other detainees in other confinements more seriously, and to release the people that have no charges against them," he said.

He would not give specifics on his treatment during his time in U.S. custody, although he did not give any impression he was abused. Hamdi did allude to solitary confinement when he said prayer helped him during long days alone.

"It's something that I really can't describe at all," he said, when asked how it felt to be free. "Just to be let down and to be given freedom -- you really know what the meaning of freedom [is]."

CNN's Phil Hirschkorn and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.

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