WASHINGTON — In the first ruling of its kind, a federal judge ordered the speedy release Thursday of five Algerian men after concluding the government didn't have the evidence to hold them for nearly seven years in Guantanamo Bay prison.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, who was appointed by President Bush, was the latest setback for the administration's detention policies and could foretell more court-ordered releases.
The five men are natives of Algeria and citizens of Bosnia. They were arrested there in 2001 and were alleged to be plotting with al-Qaida. When the Bosnian courts ordered the men freed, U.S. authorities took them into custody and sent them to Guantanamo.
The prisoners include Lakhdar Boumediene, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that led to a Supreme Court ruling in June that said the Guantanamo detainees were entitled to challenge their detention before judges. Boumediene, 42, maintained all along that he was a relief worker with the Islamic Red Crescent.
Leon, however, backed the continued imprisonment of a sixth Algerian from the same group, concluding that the Justice Department had sufficient evidence he was a supporter of al-Qaida.
Leon's decision marked the first time that a lower court has concluded after a habeas corpus hearing that the government lacked evidence to hold Guantanamo detainees as enemy combatants. Now, more than 200 other detainees await similar reviews in Washington's federal court.
Leon said he didn't want his ruling to serve as precedent for upcoming cases. Nonetheless, the decision — issued by a judge who originally supported the government's position — is certain to hearten administration critics who think that many detainees are being held in the prison in Cuba without cause.
The ruling, however, doesn't figure to lead to a quick release.
The Justice Department can appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals here. It could be weeks before the appeals court considers the matter, and its judges generally have endorsed Bush administration policies.
In an unusual entreaty, Leon urged the administration not to appeal his order releasing the five men. "Seven years of waiting for our legal system to give them an answer to a question so important is, in my judgment, more than enough," he said.