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U.S. Returns Bosnians From Guantanamo


For the first time since the prison camp opened at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. has sent detainees home on the orders of a federal judge. This morning, three Bosnians landed in Sarajevo. They were briefly taken into custody by Bosnian officials and then released to their families. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: In June, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case involving six Bosnians, ruled that the detainees at Guantanamo have the right to challenge their detentions in court. Last month, Judge Richard Leon, a conservative Bush appointee, held the first proceeding to carry out that mandate. He ruled there was no credible evidence to justify detaining five of the men and ordered them released immediately. What's more, he urged the Bush administration not to appeal his ruling, saying it would only delay the release of men held almost seven years without any basis. Today, without any public announcement, three of the men were flown home. Word of the release came from their lawyers - among them, Stephen Oleskey.

STEPHEN OLESKEY: Unfortunately, apparently, our government chose to send them back shackled and hooded on the 20 hour or so plane ride from Guantanamo after they had been declared free men who should no longer be held. But at least they're home.

TOTENBERG: And Oleskey says they're elated.

OLESKEY: I just talked to one of our clients in Sarajevo. They're having a party.

TOTENBERG: The background sounds of greetings from friends, relatives, wives and children, he said, was so chaotic that any real description of the reunion will have to wait for another day. There was no explanation from the Defense Department as to why two of the Bosnians ordered released remain at Guantanamo. Lawyers for the group theorize that the three men who are home now are Algerian-born Bosnian citizens, while the two still at Gitmo are Bosnian residents, but not citizens.

Ironically, one of the men still at Gitmo, Lakhdar Boumediene, was the lead plaintiff in the case that led to the landmark Supreme Court ruling on detainee rights. He was stripped of his Bosnian citizenship in 2006. For the past two years, he's been on a hunger strike and force-fed. His lawyer, Mr. Oleskey, says he's down to 129 pounds.

OLESKEY: He's not a healthy person, but he has said repeatedly to us that he will not stop hunger striking until he steps off a plane a free man. Of course, he was made a free man on November 20, and we hope that our government will make that a reality before January 20.

TOTENBERG: The saga of these Bosnian men is extraordinary, even in the context of Guantanamo. They were arrested in their homes shortly after 9/11 when U.S. government officials informed Bosnian government authorities that the men were involved in a plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy. Bosnian authorities then joined with the U.S. and Interpol to conduct an investigation, at the end of which, the Bosnian Supreme Court, with the concurrence of the Bosnian prosecutor, ordered the men released. They were, however, rearrested and sent to Guantanamo where they have remained ever since.

The U.S. government long ago conceded they were not involved in a plot to blow up the embassy, and Bosnian authorities have long said they would accept the men back into the country. Now it appears the Bosnian government may be hesitant to repatriate non-citizens, especially non-citizens characterized by the U.S. government for years as dangerous. Diplomatic negotiations are continuing. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.