WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court said Monday that the U.S. military improperly labeled a Chinese Muslim held at Guantanamo Bay an "enemy combatant" and it ordered that he be released, transferred or granted a new hearing.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington marks the first time a federal court has weighed in on the issue of a Guantanamo detainee's classification and granted him the opportunity to try to secure his release through civilian courts.
A lawyer for Huzaifa Parhat, who has been kept virtually incommunicado for more than six years, said he and other members of Parhat's legal team would seek to have him freed immediately. Parhat is one of 17 Uighur Muslims, an ethnic minority in China, who are still being held at Guantanamo even though the U.S. government acknowledges they pose no threat.
"It is a tremendous day. It is a very conservative court, but we pressed ahead and we won unanimously," said lawyer P. Sabin Willett. "But Huzaifa Parhat is now in his seventh year of imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, and he doesn't even know about this ruling because he's sitting in solitary confinement and we can't tell him about it. That's what we do to people in this country -- we put them in solitary confinement even when they are not enemy combatants."
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, declined to discuss the ruling and referred calls to the Justice Department, which issued a statement saying, "We're reviewing the decision and considering our options."
The decision was the latest in a series of legal setbacks for the Bush administration and its efforts to defend the military commissions process at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The order came just 11 days after the Supreme Court ruled that the 270 or so detainees at Guantanamo have a constitutional right of habeas corpus, which allows them to challenge their detention in federal courts. That ruling marked the third time since 2004 that the nation's highest court has limited the government's power to use the military to detain and prosecute foreign nationals at Guantanamo.
The appeals court specified that Parhat could "seek release immediately" through a writ of habeas corpus in light of the Supreme Court's June 12 decision.
Parhat's case and scores like it had been put on hold until the Supreme Court made its ruling on the habeas corpus issue.
"Now all of these cases have been revived and this is the first case to move forward," said David Cole, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University. "And here is somebody that the military has been holding on to for six years and the federal court now says he shouldn't have been held in the first place.
"Absent this independent judicial review, he might have been sitting there for another 10 to 15 years. Now he has a chance to find freedom," said Cole, the author of two books on legal issues in the U.S.-led counter-terrorism campaign.
In a one-paragraph notice, the three judges on the appellate panel said they could not discuss their order publicly because it contained classified information and that a declassified version would be available later.
But those familiar with the panel's decision, made Friday, said it suggested that other judges might follow its lead and challenge the government's underlying reasons for keeping detainees like Parhat in military custody for so long.
The ruling came in response to a petition under the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which allowed detainees a limited review of their enemy-combatant designation before the Washington appeals court.
Military officials designated hundreds of detainees like Parhat through combatant-status review tribunals, which allowed for them to be prosecuted by the military.
"The premise of the DTA was that the courts would rubber-stamp whatever the administration wanted to do to people designated as enemy combatants. But this shows that the courts are not going to roll over and play dead on the basis of bogus evidence," said Willett, adding that the ruling "cleared" his client of any connections to terrorism.
Parhat, 37, and other Uighurs were captured in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. He has insisted that he sought refuge there from an oppressive Chinese government and never fought against the United States.
The U.S. government has produced no evidence suggesting that he ever intended to fight, but it designated him an enemy combatant because of alleged links to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group demanding independence from China that Washington says has links to Al Qaeda.
Five Uighurs were released from Guantanamo two years ago to seek asylum in Albania, after the United States said it could not return them to China because they would face persecution there.
Parhat is one of 17 Uighurs being held at Guantanamo, and all of them have been cleared for release as part of annual reviews, a U.S. official said Monday. Although they are still designated enemy combatants, they are not considered significant threats or to have further intelligence value, the official said.
The Uighurs at Guantanamo have become a legal and diplomatic headache for the administration, which says it cannot find a country willing to accept them.
The U.S. official said federal authorities have balked at allowing the Uighurs into the United States.
Some critics have also accused the administration of unfairly portraying the Uighurs as terrorists as a way of appeasing the Chinese government, which seeks to tamp down separatist efforts by the group.
Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.