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Obama relents to judge's order on releasing Guantanamo detainee

After initially balking, the administration agrees to free Mohammed Jawad, now 23, for lack of admissible evidence. He'll be returned to his native Afghanistan after Congress is briefed on his case.

July 30, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — Avoiding a showdown with a federal judge, the Obama administration agreed Wednesday to release from Guantanamo Bay an Afghan prisoner who was captured as a teenager and held nearly seven years for allegedly throwing a grenade at U.S. soldiers.

The government said it would "promptly release" Mohammed Jawad, now 23, and send him to Afghanistan -- but only after it sent a required notification to Congress explaining whether his release would pose a risk to national security. That will take 22 days, the administration said.

The tentative end to the case is the latest step in the administration's effort to close the prison. Of the more than 200 detainees who remain at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, some are being released and sent home while others are being held for trial. A third group has proved far more troublesome. They are believed to be too dangerous to release but cannot be tried because the evidence against them is tainted.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union had fought for Jawad's release, and last year a military judge at Guantanamo agreed that the only evidence against him came from a confession "obtained by the use of torture" by Afghan interrogators.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo prisoners could challenge their detentions before a federal judge through a writ of habeas corpus. Acting on such a writ this month, U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle ruled that the government had no basis for continuing to hold Jawad.

The Obama administration balked, believing that other evidence from witnesses could show he was guilty of throwing the grenade. The judge, however, insisted Jawad was entitled to go free.

The case could have led to a constitutional showdown, because no judge has forced the release of a Guantanamo prisoner over the objections of the government.

But in Wednesday's order, the administration agreed to release Jawad after informing Congress. Lawmakers adopted an appropriations measure this year that requires the administration to provide "an assessment of any risk to the national security" before freeing a Guantanamo prisoner.

Jonathan Hafetz, an ACLU lawyer for Jawad, said he was "cautiously optimistic" that his client would be released soon.

"They are moving closer to recognizing he should be sent home, but we are not there yet," he said.

Government officials said they were continuing to investigate Jawad to see if he could be charged with a criminal violation.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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