Judge says US held Afghan man unlawfully at Guantanamo Bay

  • A judge ordered the release of Asadullah Haroon Gul.
  • Gul was held without trial at Guantanamo Bay for 14 years.
  • A US military review board ruled it was safe to release him.

A US judge has ruled the United States has no legal basis for holding an Afghan man at the notorious US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, setting the stage for his potential release, his lawyer told Al Jazeera.

Asadullah Haroon Gul, an Afghan national, has been held at Guantanamo since June 2007 after he was captured in the eastern city of Jalalabad by Afghan forces and turned over to the US military.

READ | US tells Supreme Court Guantanamo detainee can give limited testimony

US District Court Judge Amit Mehta, ruling on a petition of habeas corpus, has rejected the US government’s arguments for continuing to hold Gul in detention at Guantanamo.

"The outcome of the petition was that it was granted," said Tara Plochocki, Gul's lawyer who said she was "delighted" by the judge's ruling.

Gul was held for 14 years at Guantanamo without charge and denied access to a lawyer for the first nine years of his detention, according to Reprieve, a US legal advocacy group. 

'His detention is illegal'

In 2016, his lawyers filed a petition in federal court in Washington, DC, arguing his detention was unlawful.

Details of the judge's ruling are classified as secret for the time being but Gul's lawyer said the result is clear.

"The judge has ruled that his detention is illegal. And as with any other court order against the US government, there is a constitutional obligation to give effect to that order. And so, it should mean that he is immediately released," Plochocki told Al Jazeera.

Sehar Bibi holds a photograph of son Asadullah, in
Sehar Bibi holds a photograph of son Asadullah, in Shamshatu refugee camp near Pakistan's north-western city of Peshawar.

Habeas corpus is a centuries-old principle of British and US common law that allows people who have been wrongfully imprisoned to challenge the basis of their continuing detention.

While the US Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that Guantanamo detainees have a right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Judge Mehta's ruling is the first time in 10 years a detainee has won a habeas corpus claim, Plochocki said.

Gul had been member of a group called Hezb-e-Islami, or the Islamic Party of Afghanistan, which reached a peace agreement with the Western-backed Afghan government in Kabul in 2016.

His lawyers had argued that because US hostilities in Afghanistan had ceased, he should be released but the judge rejected those arguments.

Gul was never part of the Taliban, or al-Qaeda or any al-Qaeda afflicted group and did not fight against the US. 

Military review board

He asserted in court documents that he had been on a business trip to Afghanistan from the refugee camp in Pakistan, where he was living with his family, when he was captured.

The judge's ruling indicates government lawyers failed to make a case that Gul could continue to be detained because of any connection to al-Qaeda.

"We were the first case to take a run at what the statute actually means and how the government's construing it" and whether the US was "prolonging their detention authority by any means necessary", Plochocki said.

Importantly, prior to the judge's ruling, a US military review board ruled on 7 October that it was safe to release Gul and his detention no was longer necessary, citing a "lack of leadership in extremist organisations" and "lack of clear ideological basis for his prior conduct".

Reprieve US lawyer Mark Maher said in a statement:

The board's recommendation is welcome, but we should remember Asadullah has spent more than 14 years of his life in prison without charge or trial.

"Asadullah missed his daughter's entire childhood. He should be reunited with his family as soon as possible, but there is no way to restore what has been taken from them."

Any effort by Justice Department lawyers - who had been defending the government’s authority to detain Gul - to appeal the district judge's ruling would be undercut by the review board decision that he should be released.

Haroon Gul is one of 39 men still being held at Guantanamo and now one of 13 who have been cleared by the military review board for release. 

Some men have had clearances for years and still languish in the prison.

US President Joe Biden has promised to close Guantanamo, where more than 740 men were detained between 2002 and 2017 - often without any formal charges, and in some cases, subjected to torture.

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