WASHINGTON — The Justice Department conceded Friday that it lacks the evidence to hold a teenage Guantanamo detainee as an enemy combatant after a federal judge last week ruled that his confession was inadmissible.
In a hearing last week, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle ruled that Mohammed Jawad's confession to Afghan officials was inadmissible because it had been extracted through torture. She also questioned whether the Justice Department had any evidence to proceed with a trial to determine whether he can be held as an enemy combatant.
Huvelle called the case an "outrage" and told Justice Department lawyers that their case against Jawad had been "gutted."
"Without his statements, I don't understand your case," she told Justice Department lawyers. "Sir, the facts can only get smaller, not bigger. . . . Face it, this case is in trouble. . . . Seven years and this case is riddled with holes."
She then urged the lawyers to "let him out. Send him back to Afghanistan."
Department lawyers, however, signaled they may bring him to the U.S. for a criminal trial.
The lawyers asked a judge to delay Jawad's immediate release to allow criminal investigators to review allegations that he threw a grenade at soldiers. A Justice Department spokesman said late Friday that Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered the investigation be "expedited."
In a statement issued Friday, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said the department had to determine whether it has enough evidence to prosecute him in criminal court.
Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer with the ACLU's National Security Project, was skeptical that the government could come up with new evidence to prosecute Jawad in federal court.
"They're simply trying to manufacture new ways to prolong his detention," he said.
The Justice Department's case against Jawad, whom Afghan officials say was captured when he was just 12 years old, underscores the difficulties the U.S. government faces in justifying its continued imprisonment of Guantanamo detainees.
President Barack Obama ordered the closure of Guantanamo by January, but the administration has struggled to come up with a way to either release or try detainees.
A task force convened by Obama to review Guantanamo cases considered Jawad's case and referred him for possible prosecution, Boyd said.
He added that prosecutors have also reviewed statements by an eyewitness that was "not previously made available to the court."
Boyd didn't elaborate on what that evidence entailed. If the judge refuses to grant more time for the criminal investigation, however, the Justice Department said it would need several weeks to prepare his transfer back to Afghanistan.
Last year, a military judge determined that Afghan police threatened Jawad's family while he was undergoing interrogation at a Kabul police station. The judge also concluded there was evidence that Jawad was under the influence of drugs at the time of his capture and forced confession.
''You will be killed if you do not confess to the grenade attack,'' the detainee quoted an interrogator as saying. "We will arrest your family and kill them if you do not confess.''
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