WASHINGTON — A young Guantanamo detainee appears likely to be sent home by late August after a federal judge concluded Thursday that he'd been held illegally and ordered him released after almost seven years.
"After this horrible, long, tortured history, I hope the government will succeed in getting him back home," U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle told Justice Department lawyers during a court hearing Thursday. "Enough has been imposed on this young man to date."
U.S. officials say they think that Mohammed Jawad was 17 when first detained, but Afghan officials have said they think he was 12.
While the Justice Department maintains that there's still a chance that Jawad will be charged in federal court, officials also acknowledged in court that they faces major obstacles in prosecuting him, including the fact that most of the evidence against him has been thrown out because it was obtained through torture.
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Huvelle told the government to begin the process of releasing Jawad by Aug. 21 to comply with new congresssional restrictions on the Obama administration. The judge also ordered the government toï¿½report on the status of Jawad's release on Aug. 24.
Jawad, who's now being held in a section of the facility reserved for detainees ready for release, already had been told that the government conceded last week that he no longer could be held as a military detainee, "but he remained confused about what would happen next," said one of his lawyers, Jonathan Hafetz of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Hopefully, today's order by the judge will give him further clarity and hope that this nightmare is coming to an end."
If he's released, Jawad plans to return to his family and he hopes to study to become a doctor, Hafetz said. The Afghan government has offered to dispatch a plane to Cuba to pick him up, but Justice Department lawyers said the Pentagon and State Department were still working out the details of his transfer.
Jawad was originally charged with throwing a grenade that wounded two U.S. soldiers in Kabul. A military judge ruled last year, however, that his confession to Afghanistan authorities had been coerced by torture because they threatened to arrest and kill his family. Huvelle earlier this month told Justice Department attorneys that without the confession they had no evidence against him.
The Justice Department has said a task force now reviewing Guantanamo cases considered Jawad's case and referred him for possible prosecution, but his lawyers said Thursday that they were optimistic that he would not be charged.
"The judge made it abundantly clear today that any criminal prosecution would face virtually insurmountable obstacles," Hafetz said. "She admonished the government in the strongest terms possible that prosecuting Mr. Jawad at this point would be totally inconsistent with the evidence she's seen and would really flout basic principles of justice."
Last week, the judge angrily called the case an "outrage."
Huvelle is only the latest judge to criticize the Justice Department for its handling of Guantanamo cases. President Barack Obama has pledged to close Guantanamo by January, but the administration has yet to complete a plan for releasing detainees or trying them in U.S. courts.
Thursday, Huvelle reiterated her concerns.
"Let's hear it, are you going to be reasonable?" the judge prodded the Justice Department lawyers.
"The courts are in an untenable position because we're told to move quickly," she said. "At every turn, there's been a request to delay."
After she rattled off the possible challenges the government would face in putting Jawad on trial in federal court — including that he was a juvenile when he was detained — Deputy Assistant Attorney General Ian Gershengorn said that he "shared" the court's concerns although the decision about prosecution would be made by another team of attorneys.
"I have every expectation that I will hear August 24th that he is en route," Huvelle said, before adding: "I will continue to share my concerns with the attorney general if he wants to listen."
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