WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court for the first time
has overturned the military's designation of a Guantánamo
detainee as an enemy combatant.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for
the District of Columbia Circuit overturned as "invalid" a
military tribunal's conclusion that prisoner Huzaifa Parhat is
an enemy combatant.
The court directed the Pentagon either to release or
transfer Parhat or to hold a new tribunal hearing "consistent
with the court's opinion."
This is the first time that a circuit court has
overruled a finding by a so-called status review tribunal, the
Pentagon panels of military officers that determine whether a
captive at Guantánamo meets the definition of "enemy
The ruling could force the government to release Parhat
and reassess enemy-combatant designations in other cases.
Administration officials have vowed to close Guantánamo
someday, but they say they're "stuck'' with the 65 or so
detainees who've been identified for release but can't be let
go because their countries refuse to take them back.
Some 270 people are held as enemy combatants at Guantánamo.
Parhat, 37, has been held more than six years. He's one
of a group of ethnic Uighurs from western China who were
shipped to Guantánamo from Afghanistan in May 2002.
The United States has faced numerous problems finding
countries that are willing to accept foreign prisoners who
can't return to their own countries because of concerns that
they might be tortured there.
Five other Uighurs who weren't declared enemy
combatants waited nine months after their release was approved
before U.S. officials persuaded Albania to accept them. Parhat
is one of 17 Uighurs still held as enemy combatants.
"This is a case of someone being in the wrong place at
the wrong time," said Jason Pinney, one of Parhat's
attorneys. "We hope this ruling increases the pressure on the
government to do the right thing and resettle people to third
countries when they need to. It bodes very well for other
The Pentagon declined comment on the ruling, referring
questions to the Justice Department, where spokesman Erik
Ablin said he couldn't answer questions about the decision
because the department was still reviewing it.
In a June 19 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates
that was released Monday, Reps. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., and
Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., say that the Uighurs are friends
of the United States and should be paroled to the U.S. The
lawmakers urged that they be transferred to less-restrictive
quarters at Guantánamo Bay in the meantime.
Parhat's appeal of his status was filed with the
appeals court in December 2006 after Congress granted the
court authority to hear such challenges. The appeals court
noted that Parhat also has the right to appeal his confinement
to a federal district court under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling
issued earlier this month.
The circuit judges didn't immediately release their
full ruling, but announced the decision in a short notice
posted Monday. The court said it would release a redacted
version later that would be free of classified information.
According to records of Parhat's tribunal proceeding,
the military accused him of being a member of the East
Turkistan Islamic Movement and said that a weapons training
camp he'd attended in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains was
run by the Taliban. He denied being a member of the group and
said he didn't know who'd backed the camp.
"I believe that the (Uighur) people were trying to get
back their country from China and I don't believe Osama bin
Laden or the Taliban were financially providing for the
camp," he said at the tribunal.
Parhat also said he wasn't an enemy of the United
States, and that he and other Uighurs had left China because
they were being persecuted.
"We have never been against the United States," he
said. "I think that the United States understands the
The military has concluded at various times that Parhat
should be released, Pinney said.
The tribunal found in 2005 that there was no evidence
that Parhat was a member of the East Turkistan Islamic
Movement. However, it concluded that because he'd attended the
camp, he still could be held as an enemy combatant.
A review board later cleared him for release. Defense
attorneys don't know the exact date of the decision, but were
informed in February 2007. By then, Parhat's lawyers were
waiting for the courts to rule on a challenge to his detention
and to his enemy-combatant status.
Declassified documents turned over to Parhat's lawyers
showed that government officials had recommended releasing him
as early as 2003.
Pinney said he thought that U.S. officials hadn't
released him in part to avoid harming diplomatic relations
with China. Parhat's lawyers have demanded that the military
find another country that's willing to accept him, citing
Parhat's fear that he'll be tortured if he's returned to
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that
Guantánamo Bay detainees can challenge their extended
imprisonment in federal court, and struck down the circuit court review as
The ruling in Boumediene v. Bush was the latest in a
string of judicial defeats for the Bush administration. It
marked the third time in four years that the Supreme Court has
repudiated the administration's efforts to exclude foreign
prisoners from traditional legal protections. The Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report from Miami.