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U.S. Will Free Louisiana-Born 'Enemy Combatant'

To be returned to Saudi Arabia, Yaser Esam Hamdi must give up his American citizenship. As part of the deal, he also faces travel curbs.

September 23, 2004|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration agreed Wednesday to release an American-born "enemy combatant" whose more than two-year detention without charges or lawyers culminated this summer in a resounding Supreme Court defeat for the White House.

After insisting for months that the continued incarceration of Yaser Esam Hamdi was essential to national security, government attorneys agreed to send him back to his family in Saudi Arabia, on a Defense Department jet, in the next few days.

Under terms of the agreement, Hamdi is required to renounce his U.S. citizenship, but he will not face any criminal charges.

He also is subject to travel restrictions, and pledged not to sue the United States for any injuries sustained during his confinement at military brigs in Virginia and South Carolina.

The agreement, which has been the subject of intense and delicate negotiations for weeks between the government and Hamdi's court-appointed lawyers, marks a swift turnaround in one of the most highly charged cases in the administration's war on terrorism.

Seized by U.S. soldiers on a battlefield in Afghanistan in late 2001, the Louisiana-born, Saudi-raised Hamdi was held for three months at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

After officials realized he was a U.S. citizen, he was transferred to a Navy brig in Norfolk, Va., and then to a brig in Charleston, S.C., where he remains.

Throughout, he was denied access to lawyers and family members. The government argued that by designating him an enemy combatant it could hold him indefinitely without charges.

Critics contended that, as an American citizen, Hamdi was being denied due process of law.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 ruling, agreed with them. The negotiations that ultimately led to his release began soon after.

"I am gratified at the prospect that Mr. Hamdi's return to Saudi Arabia and his family is now only days away," Hamdi's lawyer, federal public defender Frank W. Dunham Jr., said in a prepared statement.

The agreement bars Hamdi from traveling to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Pakistan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the United States.

The Justice Department said the restrictions were aimed at ensuring that Hamdi would no longer be a threat to the United States or its allies.

Officials said they decided to release Hamdi because his intelligence value had been exhausted.

"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," said Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman.

Although officials described terms of the agreement, the government said the complete document would not be made public until filed in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Va., next week.

Hamdi's agreement underscores the widely varying fates of Americans and other prisoners caught up in the administration's anti-terrorism net since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Californian John Walker Lindh, a convert to Islam who was picked up in Afghanistan around the same time as Hamdi, pleaded guilty in federal court to aiding the Taliban. He is serving a 20-year prison sentence.

U.S. officials continue to hold former Chicago gang member Jose Padilla, who is suspected of plotting radiological and other attacks against the U.S. with alleged Al Qaeda leaders.

Padilla has not been charged but remains in custody. He is also believed to be an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorism case recently disclosed in Florida.

"It is so uneven and random. That is wrong," said Joshua Dratel, a New York defense lawyer who represents Australian David Hicks, one of four men who went on trial last month before a special military commission at Guantanamo Bay.

"The government is playing a shell game with the notion of a fair proceeding," Dratel said.

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