Judge not buying feds' case against 11-year-old terrorist

The judge ordered the release of a detainee accused of belonging to a London terror cell at a time when he was 11, and lived in Saudi Arabia.

Published January 15, 2009 10:35PM (EST)

It's no secret that the government doesn't exactly have ironclad cases against some of the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. Even so, actually seeing the flimsiness of one of these cases is shocking -- it would be funny if it weren't so devastatingly sad.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ordered the release of detainee Mohammed El Gharani. The feds argued that Gharani, a 21-year-old born in Chad, had traveled to Afghanistan to train and fight with al-Qaida.

While there turns out to be little evidence for this claim, it's at least vaguely plausible. The government’s other accusation against Gharani, however, is laughable. He's alleged to have been a member of a London-based al-Qaida cell, but at the time the government claims this happened he was 11, and living in Saudi Arabia. This prompted Leon to write:

Putting aside the obvious and unanswered questions as to how a Saudi minor from a very poor family could have even become a member of a London-based cell, the government simply advances no corroborating evidence for these statements it believes to be reliable from a fellow detainee, the basis of whose knowledge is -- at best -- unknown.

This brings up another topic in the news about Guantanamo recently. In response to the discussions about the time it will take the Obama administration to close the facility, conservatives have taken to crowing that the president-elect's going to have a hard time reconciling high-minded liberal ideals about the rule of law with the harsh reality of the situation. (Call it the “You can’t handle the truth” argument.)

Here, for example, is the Weekly Standard’s Michael Goldfarb:

Barack Obama has come up with a clever strategy on Gitmo -- order the closure of the U.S. prison there and take the next one to eight years figuring out how best to implement the new policy. The left has given him a pass on this as they will give him a pass on just about anything for the foreseeable future, but the implication is clear: Obama has no idea what to do with men... who pose a very real threat to the American people but cannot be convicted in federal court for the crimes they have already committed.

Of course, there are people in Guantanamo who constitute a graver threat than Gharani does. But this case is the kind of thing that should at least make people like Goldfarb think a little harder about the argument they're making in favor of keeping the prison open.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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