In the first case to review the government's secret evidence for holding a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a federal appeals court found that accusations against a Chinese man held for more than six years were based on bare and unverifiable claims. Unclassified parts of the decision were released Monday.
With some derision for the Bush administration's arguments, a three-judge panel said the government contended that its accusations against a detainee should be accepted as true because they had been repeated in at least three secret documents.
The court compared that to the absurd declaration of a character in the Lewis Carroll poem The Hunting of the Snark: "I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true."
"This comes perilously close to suggesting that whatever the government says must be treated as true," said the panel of the District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The unanimous panel overturned as invalid a Pentagon determination that the detainee, Huzaifa Parhat, a member of the ethnic Uighur Muslim minority in western China, was properly held as an enemy combatant.
The release on Monday of the unclassified parts of the decision followed a brief court notice last week. The notice said a classified decision had directed the government to release Parhat, transfer him to another country or conduct a new military hearing at Guantanamo to determine if he was properly classified as an enemy combatant.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Although the decision was a defeat for the Bush administration, it was unclear what it might mean immediately for Parhat, a former fruit peddler who sent a message to his wife that she should remarry because his imprisonment at Guantanamo was like already being dead.
U.S. officials have said that they cannot return Parhat and 16 other Uighur detainees at Guantanamo to China for fear of mistreatment and that some 100 other countries have refused to accept them.
Detainees' lawyers said the ruling in the case of Parhat, who says he went to Afghanistan in 2001 to escape China, could affect many other detainees' cases because of the court's skeptical view of the government's evidence.
A lawyer representing other detainees, Marc D. Falkoff, said the evidence against many of the 270 men at Guantanamo was similar to that reviewed in the Parhat case.
The court said the classified evidence supporting the Pentagon's claims against Parhat included assertions that events had "reportedly" occurred and that the connections were "said to" exist, without providing information about the source of such information.
Some lawyers said the ruling highlighted the difficulties they see in civilian judges reviewing Guantanamo cases.
"This case displays the inadequacies of having civilian courts inject themselves into military decisionmaking," said Glenn M. Sulmasy, a law professor at the Coast Guard Academy and a national security fellow at Harvard.
The appeals court judges reviewed Parhat's case under a procedure Congress provided for challenging military hearings at Guantanamo. The case was argued before the Supreme Court ruled on June 12 that detainees have a right to seek release in more expansive habeas corpus proceedings.