WASHINGTON -- Al-Qaida or Taliban supporters who directly assisted in hostile acts against the United States or its allies can be held without charges as enemy combatants, a federal judge ruled Monday.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon takes a first step toward resolving the fate of some of the hundreds of men -- many who have been held for years without charges -- detained as terror suspects at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
It also strikes a compromise between dueling definitions by the government and the detainees over who can be labeled an enemy combatant.
Attorneys for six detainees, all Bosnians, said Monday's ruling limits the government's ability to hold suspects who were not captured on a battlefield. They called it a "favorable" opinion.
Similarly, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said the government was "pleased" with Leon's ruling, which relies on the Defense Department's own 2004 definition of an enemy combatant.
One of the Bosnians involved in the hearing, Lakhdar Boumediene, won a landmark case in front of the Supreme Court last summer giving detainees the right to challenge their detention in federal courts. Before those cases can move forward, lower courts were tasked with defining the term enemy combatant -- and who would qualify as one.
"Happily, happily, there is a definition that was crafted by the executive and blessed by the Congress," Leon told the courtroom.
He pointed to the 2004 standard, defining an enemy combatant as an individual who was part of supporting al-Qaida, Taliban or other associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the U.S. or its coalition partners.
Specifically, the definition includes any person who committed a belligerent act or has directly supported hostilities in aid of enemy forces.
With the definition in hand, both sides headed into what Leon described as a "secret" hearing to discuss the evidence of the case against the Bosnians, much of which is classified and cannot be discussed in open court -- or even with the detainees themselves.
The government initially detained Boumediene and the other five men on suspicion of plotting to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo in October 2001. The Justice Department backed off those accusations last week.
Detainee attorney Steve Oleskey said the Justice Department likely now will hinge its case on phone calls that one of the six detainees allegedly made to terrorist groups in Afghanistan in 2001. He said the other five Bosnians are accused of having plans only to join terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.
Oleskey called it "quite a stretch" for the government to label the Bosnians as enemy combatants under those facts.
"If the allegation is a planned trip, is that support?" added fellow detainee attorney Rob Kirsch.
Leon's order defining enemy combatants only applies to the estimated two dozen detainee cases under his review. The rest of the cases are being reviewed by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who could set his own definition.