WASHINGTON A 21-year-old citizen of Chad who has been held for seven years at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba must be released, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said the government had not proven that Mohammed el Gharani was an enemy combatant and the detainee must be freed and sent home soon either to Saudi Arabia, where he was raised and his family lives, or Chad.
Leon's ruling comes just before President-elect Barack Obama, who has vowed to close the prison camp, takes office on Tuesday.
Since Obama's election in November, federal judges have speeded up case-by-case reviews of about 200 detainee legal challenges in the wake of a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June that gave Guantanamo Bay prisoners the legal right to challenge their confinement.
Gharani, also known as Yousuf Al Karany, was arrested in Pakistan in 2001 and taken to Guantanamo Bay in early 2002.
The U.S. government had said that Gharani -- who was 14 when he was arrested -- had stayed in an al Qaeda-affiliated guest house in Afghanistan, had fought in the battle of Tora Bora, had served as a courier for senior al Qaeda operatives and was a member of a London-based al Qaeda cell.
But Leon said the government could not prove any of the allegations. He said they relied mainly on information from two other detainees at Guantanamo Bay whose reliability and credibility was questionable.
"The government's evidence was a mosaic of allegations," Leon said in a ruling from the bench.
"The government has failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that petitioner el Gharani was 'part of or supporting' al Qaeda or the Taliban," he said. "Simply stated, a mosaic of tiles bearing images this murky reveals nothing about the petitioner with sufficient clarity ... that can be relied upon by this court."
Gharani listened to the ruling via a telephone hookup. He did not make any comments but the attorney representing him in Washington called the ruling a "fantastic result."
"Judge Leon did justice today," said Zachary Katznelson, legal director at Reprieve, a London-based non-profit group representing about 30 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
"This is an innocent kid, only 14 years old, who was seized illegally by the Pakistanis," said Katznelson. "He never should have been seized in the first place. He's spent one third of his life in Guantanamo."
Katznelson said Gharani, who is a citizen of Chad but was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, would hopefully be sent home within a few weeks. He did not know if Gharani would go to Saudi Arabia, where most of his family lives but where the government has said it was not interested in him, or to Chad.
Gharani's lawyers said he left Saudi Arabia in 2001 to study in Pakistan, where he was detained and eventually sent to the United States. The U.S. government had said Gharani had actually gone to Afghanistan where he took part in fighting and was fleeing to Pakistan when he was detained.
About 250 detainees remain held at Guantanamo, which was set up in January 2002 to hold terrorism suspects captured after the Sept, 11 attacks on the United States. Most have been held for years without being charged and many have complained of abuse.
(Editing by Anthony Boadle)