WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda or Taliban supporters who directly assisted in hostile acts against the United States or its allies can be held without charge as enemy combatants, a federal judge ruled Monday.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon takes a first step toward resolving the fate of some of the hundreds of men detained as terrorism suspects -- many without charges for years -- at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
It also strikes a compromise between dueling definitions by the government and the detainees over who can be labeled an enemy combatant.
Lawyers for six detainees, all Bosnians, said Monday's ruling limited the government's ability to hold suspects who were not captured on a battlefield. They called it a favorable opinion.
Similarly, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said the government was pleased with Leon's ruling, which relies on the Defense Department's 2004 definition of an enemy combatant.
One of the Bosnians involved in the hearing, Lakhdar Boumediene, won a landmark case in front of the Supreme Court last summer giving detainees the right to challenge their detention in federal court. But first, lower courts were to define the term "enemy combatant" and decide who would qualify as one.
In Monday's order, Leon reached back to the Pentagon's September 2004 definition.
"Happily, happily, there is a definition that was crafted by the executive and blessed by the Congress," Leon said.
He pointed to the 2004 standard, defining an enemy combatant as an individual who was part of supporting Al Qaeda, Taliban or other associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the U.S. or its coalition partners.
The definition includes anyone who committed a belligerent act or has directly supported hostilities in aid of enemy forces.
With the definition in hand, both sides headed into what Leon described as a secret hearing to discuss the evidence against the Bosnians, much of which is classified and cannot be discussed in open court -- or even with the detainees themselves.
The government initially detained Boumediene and the other five men on suspicion of plotting to bomb the U.S. Embassy in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in October 2001. The Justice Department backed away from those accusations last week.
Leon's definition only applies to the estimated two dozen cases under his jurisdiction.
The rest are being reviewed by a different judge, who could set his own definition.