U.S. District Judge Richard Leon made the ruling after holding the first hearings under a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June that gave Guantanamo prisoners the legal right to challenge their confinement.
One of the men ordered released is Lakhdar Boumediene, the namesake of the legal appeal that led to the pivotal high court ruling.
Reading his ruling as the detainees listened in from Guantanamo on the telephone, Leon said the U.S. government had failed to show the five detainees had planned to travel to Afghanistan to fight against U.S. forces, according to Reuters.
Leon said the government’s evidence linking the five Algerians to al-Qaida was not credible as it came from a single, unidentified source.
“To allow enemy combatancy to rest on so thin a reed would be inconsistent with the court’s obligation,” Leon told the crowded courtroom. The case was considered an important judicial test of the Bush administration’s detention policies.
“The court must and will grant the petitioners and order their release,” he said. He ordered the U.S. government to take all necessary steps to facilitate their release “forthwith.”
The Algerians were picked up by Bosnian authorities in October 2001 and were sent in January 2002 to Guantanamo, where they have been held as “enemy combatants” without being formally charged.
“It’s a relief,” said Robert C. Kirsch, an attorney for the Algerians.
The Bosnian government has already agreed to take back the detainees, all of whom emigrated there from Algeria before their capture, the AP reported.
The judge ruled that a sixth man, Belkacem Bensayah, who was captured with the other five, could continue to remain under government detention.
In Bensayah’s case, Leon said there was enough reason to believe he was close to an al-Qaida operative and had sought to help others travel to Afghanistan to join the terror network’s campaign against the U.S., the Associated Press reported.
“This is a unique case,” Leon said, addressing concerns that the ruling could trigger the release of hundreds of other detainees. “Few if any others will be factually like it. Nobody should be lulled into a false sense that all of the … cases will look like this one.”
Leon urged high-level Bush administration officials to forego a potential appeal of his ruling, saying it could further delay the release of the men for as long as another two years.
The government initially alleged that Boumediene and the other Algerians had plotted to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo in October 2001. Last month, Justice Department officials backed off the embassy accusations, but said the six men were caught and detained before they could join al-Qaida’s terror network, according to the AP.
Justice spokesman Peter Carr said the agency is pleased that Bensayah will remain at Guantanamo but “we are of course disappointed by, and disagree with, the court’s decision that we did not carry our burden of proof with respect to the other detainees.”
There are more than 200 detainees at Guantanamo, which was set up in January 2002 to hold terrorism suspects captured after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.