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Court rules in favor of Chinese Muslim held at Gitmo

  • Story Highlights
  • Huzaifa Parhat has been detained for more than six years as an "enemy combatant"
  • Federal appeals court overturns that designation
  • Parhat is accused of attending terror training camp in Afghanistan
  • Court tells U.S. military to release Parhat, transfer him, or hold new tribunal
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From Bill Mears
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal appeals court ruled Monday that a Chinese Muslim held by the U.S. military was improperly labeled an "enemy combatant" by the Pentagon.

A guard looks over the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in this 2002 photo.

A guard looks over the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in this 2002 photo.

It's the first time a Guantanamo Bay detainee has been given an opportunity in a civilian court to try to secure his release.

The decision throws into serious doubt the underlying reasons for keeping Hazaifa Parhat in custody for more than six years.

A brief one-page order from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington directed military officials to either "release or transfer Parhat, or to expeditiously hold a new [military] tribunal."

The order came just 11 days after the Supreme Court ruled the approximately 270 detainees at Guantanamo have a basic constitutional right to challenge their detention in federal courts -- another setback for the Bush administration's anti-terror and war policies.

The justices moved quickly Monday to give federal judges further authority to hear an expected flood of appeals from accused terrorists and foreign fighters being held at the Guantanamo base in Cuba.

In a brief order of its own, the high court refused to get involved in a pending appeal from several detainees. That frees up federal judges in Washington to begin setting schedules to hear the cases. The chief judge at the U.S. District Court met with detainee lawyers last week and plans to meet with his fellow judges in the near future to discuss logistical and strategic questions.

Lawyers for the men have urged the federal courts to speed up the process, saying postponing a resolution "would once again, freeze judicial review of cases in which that review is years overdue... The human cost of further delay is simply too great."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last July concluded the U.S. military could not limit what information the courts hear when foreign detainees are challenging their imprisonment.

The government had argued national security concerns gave them the discretion to decide what documents were pertinent for judicial review. Lawyers for the Justice Department also claimed the lower court decision would "impose extraordinary compliance burdens."

About 180 detainees have appealed their continued imprisonment and complain the government is unfairly restricting access to potential evidence that could clear them of wrongdoing -- evidence the men may not even know exists.

Hearings known as combatant status review tribunals determine whether a prisoner can be designated an "enemy combatant," and prosecuted by the military. Some legal and military analysts have likened them to civilian grand jury proceedings.

A federal law passed in 2006, the Detainee Treatment Act, restricts the ability of accused enemy combatants to challenge tribunal procedures and findings before the D.C. Circuit federal appeals court.

The legal issues surrounding the foreign nationals held in U.S. custody have taken on greater urgency in recent months. Many of the men are into their seventh year of detention, and several have already had pretrial hearings before the military tribunal.

The latest appeals involve eight detainees, including Parhat and Afghani Haji Bismullah.

Parhat, a Muslim of ethnic Uighur descent, is accused of attending a terror training camp in Afghanistan at the time of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bismullah, 29, is accused of fighting with the Taliban against the United States and its Afghan allies. He is awaiting a ruling on whether his enemy combatant status was improper.

In a separate ruling, the federal appeals court in Washington refused Monday to intervene in the ongoing military prosecution of a Canadian national, who had sought immediate federal court oversight over his detention and upcoming trial.

Omar Khadr was formally charged in April 2007 with killing Sgt. Christopher James Speer, a U.S. soldier whose reconnaissance patrol was ambushed in Afghanistan in 2002. The American died nearly two weeks later. Khadr was 14 or 15 years old at the time and remains one of the youngest Guantanamo prisoners.

The three-judge federal panel in their latest ruling said it was premature to intervene with the military's criminal proceedings, but said it reserved the right to review the case later "to determine whether the [military] commission properly determined its jurisdiction and acted in conformity with the law."

The Supreme Court on three occasions since 2004 has limited the government's power to detain and prosecute foreign nationals held at Guantanamo.

The government has promised to comply with the justices' latest ruling, but President Bush said he would still consider proposing further congressional legislation limiting the power of federal courts to oversee appeals from enemy combatants.

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