US judge rules Guantanamo inmate cannot be deported

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In a major setback for the Bush administration, a federal judge has halted the deportation of a Guantanamo detainee to Tunisia because of fears that he would be tortured or killed.

It is the first time since the prison was opened in Cuba that the administration has been barred from shipping home a detainee. It is also the first time an individual detainee's rights have been upheld by the courts since Congress tried to remove its oversight of the detainees – many of whom were mistreated at the facility on the orders of the Bush administration.

Rights groups welcomed the decision, saying it was an important legal victory which should stop Washington from sending inmates to countries where they face torture or execution.

In blocking the transfer of Mohammed Abdul Rahman to Tunisia, Washington DC District Judge Gladys Kessler has also given the administration a headache as it tries to deal with the remaining 330 detainees by putting them before military tribunals or deporting them.

International outrage over the mistreatment of Guantanamo detainees is a running sore for the US which has been trying to send the prisoners elsewhere. It has used diplomatic agreements, in which recipient countries promise not to use torture, to get rid of many inmates.

Mr Bush has stated his wish to close the jail, but he has yet to find a way, short of releasing the detainees. The administration says some of them are "high value" prisoners. Hundreds of detainees have already been sent home, to uncertain futures, and the population of the facility has been steadily dwindling.

Another Guantanamo inmate, Abdul Ra'ouf Omar Mohammed Abu al-Qassim, fought his transfer home to Libya, saying he feared torture or death. He failed to win in court, but members of Congress intervened and his deportation has been indefinitely delayed.

In the latest case, Judge Kessler said: "It would be a profound miscarriage of justice" if she allowed the government to send Mr Rahman to Tunisia. She said this would amount to a death sentence. Mr Rahman faces a 20-year sentence in Tunisia after being convicted there on terrorism charges while being held at Guantanamo. Mr Rahman's lawyer said Judge Kessler's ruling would enable his client to fight what were vague assertions by the Tunisian military that he was "associated with several terrorists".

After two detainees were sent to Tunis from Guantanamo last year, one was severely tortured and his wife was threatened with rape. He remains in custody.

Judge Kessler said she had acted because the Supreme Court is reviewing whether the detainees can bring habeas corpus challenges to their imprisonment. This had "cast a deep shadow of uncertainty" over earlier rulings restricting the rights of detainees.

Jennifer Daskal, a legal adviser on terrorism issues at Human Rights Watch, said the ruling was "an important step forward". For the first time since the US Congress tried to strip the courts of rights over detainees, "a court has stepped in and said to the administration that it cannot transfer detainees out of Guantanamo to possible torture and abuse. It's a huge setback from the administration's point of view," she said.

In another ruling last week Judge Kessler told the government that it could not transfer a detainee held in US custody in Afghanistan without giving at least 30 days' notice to his lawyer.