(CN) – The government failed to prove that a West African man accused of recruiting two 9/11 hijackers was a member of al-Qaida at the time of his capture, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled in his decision to release the Guantanamo Bay detainee.
U.S. District Judge James Robertson granted Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s habeas corpus petition on March 22, but the redacted version of the ruling was just made public.
Salahi was also suspected of being involved in the failed “Millennium Plot” to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport, and was once called the “highest value detainee” at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
The Mauritanian national had not been charged with a crime since he was taken into custody in November 2001. He was transported to Guantanamo in August 2002.
Robertson said proof offered by the government that he gave material support to al-Qaida was “so tainted by coercion and mistreatment, or so classified, that it cannot support a successful criminal prosecution.”
“There is ample evidence in this record that Salahi was subjected to extensive and severe mistreatment at Guantanamo from mid-June 2003 to September 2003,” he wrote. “Salahi’s position is that every incriminating statement he made while in custody must therefore be disregarded.”
This included most, if not all, of the statements the government sought to use against him, according to the ruling.
Salahi was accused of being an organizer for al-Qaida who recruited two future 9/11 hijackers and a third man who became a 9/11 coordinator. And that he actively supported his cousin, one of Osama Bin Laden’s spiritual advisers, carried out orders to develop al-Qaida’s telecommunications capacity and had connections with an al-Qaida cell in Montreal.
“The evidence does show that he provided some support to al-Qaida, or to people he knew to be al-Qaida,” the ruling states. “Such support was sporadic, however, and, at the time of his capture, non-existent.”
The judge said “the question of when a detainee must have been a ‘part of’ al-Qaida to be detainable is at the center of this case.”
“Salahi concedes that he traveled to Afghanistan in early 1990 to fight jihad against communists and there he swore bayat to al-Qaida,” Robertson wrote. “He maintains, however, that his association with al-Qaida ended after 1992, and that, even though he remained in contact thereafter with people he knew to be al-Qaida members, he did nothing for al-Qaida after that time.”
The government’s most damaging evidence was Salahi’s admitted contacts with his cousin and brother-in-law, Abu Hafs, a spiritual adviser to Bin Laden.
But the judge said the incidents cited by the government didn’t appear to “have happened within the command structure of al-Qaida.”
He said the evidence offered by the government not only failed to incriminate Salahi, but also suggested that he was not in constant contact with al-Qaida up until 1999, as claimed by the United States.
“Rather, they tend to support Salahi’s submission that he was attempting to find the appropriate balance — avoiding close relationships with al-Qaida members, but also trying to avoid making himself an enemy,” the ruling states.
“Nevertheless, the government wants to hold Salahi indefinitely, because of its concern that he might renew his oath to al-Qaida and become a terrorist upon his release,” the judge wrote. “That concern may indeed be well-founded. Salahi fought with al-Qaida in Afghanistan (twenty years ago), associated with at least a half-dozen known al-Qaida members and terrorists, and somehow found and lived among or with al-Qaida members in Montreal.
“But a habeas court may not permit a man to be held indefinitely upon suspicion, or because of the government’s prediction that he may do unlawful acts in the future — any more than a habeas court may rely upon its prediction that a man will not be dangerous in the future and order his release if he was lawfully detained in the first place.”
Salahi filed the action in 2005, but it was put on hold, along with all other Guantanamo petitions, until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that detainees have the right to challenge their detentions, and that U.S. federal courts have the jurisdiction to hear those appeals.