WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Friday ordered the government to explain why a Libyan national detained at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should not be released immediately -- setting up a showdown next week between the court and the Bush administration over the fate of alleged enemy combatants locked up on the island.
Separately, the Pentagon announced Friday that preliminary hearings would be held next month for four other detainees, marking the first steps toward military tribunals that will be conducted in a newly built courtroom at Guantanamo Bay.
Military authorities also said Friday that they were beginning annual reviews for many of the 600 detainees in Cuba to determine whether some should be sent home, a process the Pentagon established in response to criticism that the detainees lacked due process.
The first such "combatant status review" was held for an unnamed detainee. No decision was revealed.
The developments came just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that foreign nationals held at Guantanamo Bay, as well as Americans be- ing held as enemy combat- ants without charges filed against them, had the right to challenge the legality of their confinement.
In Washington, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, a Bush appointee who took the bench shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, ordered the govern-ment to explain by Tuesday why Salim Gherebi should not be released.
If the government cannot show that Gherebi is a security risk, Walton said, he will order the 46-year-old Libyan immediately released. That would mark the first time the administra- tion was forced to free any of the captives taken in the war on terrorism.
Stephen Yagman of Los Angeles is Gherebi's lawyer but said he has never met his client or spoken to him because of restraints imposed by the military. He was hired by Gherebi's brother, Belaid of San Diego, to help win his release. Because of Walton's involvement in the case, Yagman said, the military most like- ly now will let him visit his client in Cuba.
"I want to get down there as quickly as I can, but they say it may take two to three weeks to arrange it," Yagman said.
He said that Salim Gherebi had moved to Afghanistan and had been working there as a mechanic for about four years when he was captured in February 2002. Yagman denied that Gherebi was a terrorist or had fought against U.S. forces in Afghanistan after Sept. 11.
Rather, he said, Gherebi was like many other Guantanamo Bay detainees who were "scooped up" after the U.S. military offered bounties for enemy combatants.
"People were just running around grabbing people for the bounties," Yagman said. "But he was working as an auto mechanic in Kabul. He needed a job and couldn't get a good job in Libya so he moved to Kabul. He was working there for a long time before all this stuff happened."
Terry Henry, a Justice Department attorney handling the case, declined to discuss the matter. But he filed a notice Friday, saying that the government plans to present a formal request asking the judge to dismiss his order demanding that the government explain Gherebi's status.
Some suspect that one reason the government is unwilling to release Gherebi is that his brother worked as an instructor at a San Diego flight school where two of the Sept. 11 hijackers inquired about flying lessons.
In December, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision in Gherebi's case that the government cannot indefinitely hold captured foreigners in Cuba without permitting them legal assistance to challenge their custody.
After the Supreme Court issued a similar ruling in June, the 9th Circuit sent Gherebi's case to Washington, where Walton ordered the government to defend the Libyan's indefinite detention or set him free.
Also on Friday, the Pentagon announced that preliminary hearings for four other Guantanamo Bay detainees would be held at the naval base prison before a military judge during the week of Aug. 23.
It will be the first step leading to military tribunals.
The hearings will be conducted by retired Army Col. Peter Brownback III and will open the first military tribunals -- formally known as military commissions -- since the end of World War II.
The detainees are David Hicks, an Australian, and three Al Qaeda suspects from Yemen and Sudan. Hicks is accused of conspiring to commit war crimes and attempted murder.
The other three detainees are Salim Ahmed Hamdan of Yemen, allegedly a driver and security guard for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who is charged with conspiring to commit murder and attacks on civilians; Ali Hamza Ahamad Sulayman al Bahlul of Yemen, a Bin Laden bodyguard accused of conspiracy to commit war crimes; and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi of Sudan, another Bin Laden bodyguard accused of conspiring to commit war crimes.
The Pentagon on Friday held the first in a series of nearly 600 reviews to decide whether prisoners are being lawfully held as enemy combatants, a status that denies them the standard protections accorded prisoners of war, defense officials said.
In an hourlong proceeding for the unnamed detainee, a panel of military officials passed their undisclosed recommendation on to legal advisors overseen by Navy Secretary Gordon R. England.
A ruling is expected as soon as next week.
Times staff writer John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.