As three Bosnian Algerians -- Mustafa Ait Idr, Hadj Boudella and Mohammed Nechla -- returned to their families in Bosnia-Herzegovina on Tuesday, Ait Idr spoke briefly to reporters. "For almost seven years," he said, "I was at the end of the world, at the worst place in the world. It would have been hard even if I had done something wrong, but it is much harder if one is totally innocent."
Back in the United States, meanwhile, one of the men's lawyers, Rob Kirsch, called their release "a vindication for our legal system." Kirsch was correct, as the three men are the first to be released from the prison as the result of a decision made in a U.S. court, after District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled in a habeas corpus hearing last month that the government had provided no credible evidence that, as was alleged, the men intended to travel to Afghanistan to take up arms against U.S. forces.
In addition, the refusal of the government to appeal Judge Leon's decision "may mean," as Carol Williams declared in the Los Angeles Times, "that the Bush White House has come to accept that its Guantánamo tactics are finally doomed." In his ruling, Judge Leon made a point of imploring the Justice Department, the Defense Department and the intelligence agencies not to appeal his verdict, explaining, "It seems to me that there comes a time when the desire to resolve novel, legal questions and decisions which are not binding on my colleagues pales in comparison to effecting a just result based on the state of the record."
Even so, it remains an appalling indictment of the Bush administration's detention policies that it took nearly seven years for their case to be reviewed, and, as I reported last month, that throughout their long ordeal the men have been subject to chronic abuse and coercive interrogations aimed at milking them for their non-existent intelligence value, even as the supposed reason for their detention -- an alleged plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo -- disappeared like a mirage.
Moreover, the nation's politicians must also accept their share of the blame, and Barack Obama, who has pledged to close Guantánamo and to restore America's moral standing, should be asking tough questions of his colleagues in Congress, as it was their support for two ill-conceived (and at least partly unconstitutional) pieces of legislation -- the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 -- that prevented the men's release four years ago. In June 2004, the Supreme Court granted the Guantánamo prisoners habeas corpus rights (the rights they used to secure their release on Tuesday), but the DTA and MCA sought to strip the men of these rights, and it was only in June this year, when the Supreme Court revisited its ruling, granting the prisoners constitutional habeas corpus rights, that their road to freedom finally opened up.
Celebrations for the three released men were muted by the knowledge that two other prisoners whose release was ordered by Judge Leon remain in Guantánamo. Lawyers for Sabir Lahmar and Lakhdar Boumediene explained that, although the government had offered no explanation, they believed that they were not released because Lahmar was only ever a Bosnian resident, and Boumediene was stripped of his citizenship after a disagreement with the Bosnian authorities. However, the website Balkan Insight explained that local media were reporting that the two men "could soon be joining" Mustafa Ait Idr, Hadj Boudella and Mohammed Nechla.
The time for their release is clearly long overdue. As another of their lawyers, Stephen Oleskey, explained, Boumediene "has been on a hunger strike to protest his detention." In the meantime, however, spare a thought for other prisoners, still largely unknown after nearly seven years in "the worst place in the world," whose habeas cases may also show that the government has no credible evidence against them, and for the 17 Uighurs, wrongly detained Muslims from China's oppressed Xinjiang province, whose release into the United States was ordered by Judge Ricardo Urbina on October 7, but who remain in Guantánamo because the government has appealed the ruling, even though no other country has been found that will accept them.