WASHINGTON - Lawyers for a longtime Guantanamo Bay detainee asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to intervene after the Trump administration disregarded a review board's decision clearing him for release.
Moath al-Alwi has been held in Guantanamo for more than 16 years without charges. The Yemeni native was captured in Pakistan and originally believed to have been a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. Authorities later concluded he was a low-level cadre and may not have engaged in combat.
A ruling by the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ordering al-Alwi's release could set a precedent for how some of the remaining 41 men held in Guantanamo Bay are handled. Al-Alwi's lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, said four other detainees have also been cleared for release by the Periodic Review Board but have languished in Guantanamo under the Trump administration.
The PRB system was set up by President Barack Obama's administration in 2011. The executive branch is not compelled to follow the PRB's recommendations, but Kassem said the Obama administration followed "most" of the board's decisions on releasing detainees. Kassem told the court that under Trump the PRB process has been essentially ignored.
Government lawyers told the court that al-Alwi remains a threat because of what they described as his extremist ideology.
Justice Department attorney Sonia Carson said al-Alwi should remain in Guantanamo due to his "continued extremist statements and the potential that he would be susceptible to recruitment" by another Islamic militant group if he were released.
Kassem said al-Alwi "doesn't pose a threat to anyone" and only wants to travel to Saudi Arabia where his family lives. There he would presumably be closely monitored by the Saudi government and put through the longstanding Saudi rehabilitation program for former Islamic militants, his lawyer said.
Al-Alwi is appealing the decision of a lower court, which rejected his petition for a court-ordered release. Kassem said he would like to see cases like this brought into the mainstream court system and out of the hands of a politically motivated White House.
Kassem and al-Alwi are also arguing that the government lacks authority to detain al-Alwi because the circumstances of the conflict in Afghanistan have changed so drastically over the years since the original war against the Taliban and al-Qaida essentially ended.
It was unclear when the appeals court would rule.