In a “major setback” to President Bush’s terrorism detention policies, a federal appeals court ruled today that the administration “cannot legally detain a U.S. resident it believes is an al-Qaida sleeper agent without charging him.”
In the 2–1 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel found that the federal Military Commissions Act doesn’t strip Ali al-Marri, a legal U.S. resident, of his constitutional rights to challenge his accusers in court.
It ruled the government must allow al-Marri to be released from military detention.
Al-Marri has been held in solitary confinement in the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., since June 2003. The Qatar native has been detained since his December 2001 arrest at his home in Peoria, Ill., where he moved with his wife and five children a day before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to study for a master’s degree.
“To sanction such presidential authority to order the military to seize and indefinitely detain civilians, even if the President calls them ‘enemy combatants,’ would have disastrous consequences for the constitution — and the country,” the court panel said.
[T]he panel concluded, it would grant al-Marri habeas relief, though not immediate release. It said the government had accused him — though not with formal charges — of “grave crimes.” The case was returned to a federal judge in South Carolina with instructions to order the Pentagon to release al-Marri from military custody “within a reasonable period of time to be set by the District Court. The Government can transfer al-Marri to civilian authorities to face criminal charges, initiate deportation proceedings against him, hold him as a material witness in connection with grand jury proceedings, or detain him for a limited time pursuant to the Patriot Act. But military detention of al-Marri must cease.”
UPDATE III: The New York Times calls the decision a “stinging rejection of one of the Bush administration’s central assertions about the scope of executive authority to combat terrorism.”