Al-Bihani v. Obama, No. 09-5051.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
Citation590 F.3d 866
Docket NumberNo. 09-5051.
PartiesGhaleb Nassar AL-BIHANI, Appellant v. Barack OBAMA, President of the United States, et al., Appellees.
Decision Date05 January 2010
590 F.3d 866
Ghaleb Nassar AL-BIHANI, Appellant
Barack OBAMA, President of the United States, et al., Appellees.
No. 09-5051.
United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.
Argued October 2, 2009.
Decided January 5, 2010.

[590 F.3d 868]

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, (No. 1:05-cv-01312-RJL).

Shereen J. Charlick argued the cause for appellant. With her on the briefs were Reuben Camper Cahn, Steven F. Hubachek, and Ellis M. Johnston, III.

Matthew M. Collette, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief were Ian Gershengorn, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, and Douglas N. Letter and Robert M. Loeb, Attorneys. R. Craig Lawrence, Assistant U.S. Attorney, entered an appearance.

Before: BROWN and KAVANAUGH, Circuit Judges, and WILLIAMS, Senior Circuit Judge.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge BROWN.

Concurring opinion filed by Circuit Judge BROWN.

Opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment filed by Senior Circuit Judge WILLIAMS.

BROWN, Circuit Judge:

Ghaleb Nassar Al-Bihani appeals the denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus and seeks reversal or remand. He claims his detention is unauthorized by statute and the procedures of his habeas proceeding were constitutionally infirm.

590 F.3d 869

We reject these claims and affirm the denial of his petition.


Al-Bihani, a Yemeni citizen, has been held at the U.S. naval base detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba since 2002. He came to Guantanamo by a circuitous route. It began in Saudi Arabia in the first half of 2001 when a local sheikh issued a religious challenge to Al-Bihani. In response, Al-Bihani traveled through Pakistan to Afghanistan eager to defend the Taliban's Islamic state against the Northern Alliance. Along the way, he stayed at what the government alleges were Al Qaeda-affiliated guesthouses; Al-Bihani only concedes they were affiliated with the Taliban. During this transit period, he may also have received instruction at two Al Qaeda terrorist training camps, though Al-Bihani disputes this. What he does not dispute is that he eventually accompanied and served a paramilitary group allied with the Taliban, known as the 55th Arab Brigade, which included Al Qaeda members within its command structure and which fought on the front lines against the Northern Alliance. He worked as the brigade's cook and carried a brigade-issued weapon, but never fired it in combat. Combat, however—in the form of bombing by the U.S.-led Coalition that invaded Afghanistan in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001—forced the 55th to retreat from the front lines in October 2001. At the end of this protracted retreat, Al-Bihani and the rest of the brigade surrendered, under orders, to Northern Alliance forces, and they kept him in custody until his handover to U.S. Coalition forces in early 2002. The U.S. military sent Al-Bihani to Guantanamo for detention and interrogation.

After the Supreme Court held in Rasul v. Bush, 542 U.S. 466, 483-84, 124 S.Ct. 2686, 159 L.Ed.2d 548 (2004), that the statutory habeas jurisdiction of federal courts extended to Guantanamo Bay, Al-Bihani filed a habeas petition with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, challenging his detention under 28 U.S.C. § 2241(a). The district court stayed the petition until the Supreme Court in Boumediene v. Bush, ___ U.S. ___, 128 S.Ct. 2229, 171 L.Ed.2d 41 (2008), held that the section of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (2006 MCA), Pub.L. No. 109-366, 120 Stat. 2600 (codified in part at 28 U.S.C. § 2241 & note), that withdrew jurisdiction from the courts to entertain habeas petitions filed by Guantanamo detainees was an unconstitutional suspension of the writ. 128 S.Ct. at 2274. Boumediene held that detainees were entitled to proceed with habeas challenges under procedures crafted to account for the special circumstances of wartime detention. Id. at 2276.

Soon after the Boumediene decision, the district court, acting with admirable dispatch, revived Al-Bihani's petition and convened counsel to discuss the process to be used. The district court finalized the procedure in a published case management order. See Al-Bihani v. Bush (CMO), 588 F.Supp.2d 19 (D.D.C.2008) (case management order). The order established that the government had the burden of proving the legality of Al-Bihani's detention by a preponderance of the evidence; it obligated the government to explain the legal basis for Al-Bihani's detention, to share all documents used in its factual return, and to turn over any exculpatory evidence found in preparation of its case. To Al-Bihani, the order afforded the opportunity to file a traverse and supplements to the traverse rebutting the government's factual return, to introduce new evidence, and to move for discovery upon a showing of good cause and the absence of undue burden on the government. The order reserved the district court's discretion, when appropriate, to adopt a rebuttable presumption in favor of the accuracy of the

590 F.3d 870

government's evidence and to admit relevant and material hearsay, the credibility and weight of which the opposing party could challenge. The order also scheduled status conferences to clarify any discovery and evidentiary issues with the government's factual return and to identify issues of law and fact prior to the habeas hearing where such issues would be contested. See id. at 20-21.

After the parties filed their cases in accordance with the case management order and the district court held a day and a half of hearings, the district court denied Al-Bihani's petition. Adopting a definition that allowed the government to detain anyone "who was part of or supporting Taliban or al Qaeda forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners,"1 the district court found Al-Bihani's actions met the standard. See Al-Bihani v. Obama (Mem.Op.), 594 F.Supp.2d 35, 38, 40 (D.D.C.2009) (memorandum opinion). It cited as sufficiently credible the evidence—primarily drawn from Al-Bihani's own admissions during interrogation—that Al-Bihani stayed at Al Qaeda-affiliated guesthouses and that he served in and retreated with the 55th Arab Brigade. See id. at 39-40. The district court declined to rely on evidence drawn from admissions—later recanted by Al-Bihani—that he attended Al Qaeda training camps on his way to the front lines. See id. at 39.

Al-Bihani appealed the district court's denial to this court under 28 U.S.C. § 2253(a), alleging numerous substantive and procedural defects with the order. We review the district court's findings of fact for clear error, DeBerry v. Portuondo, 403 F.3d 57, 66 (2d Cir.2005), its habeas determination de novo, id., and any challenged evidentiary rulings for abuse of discretion, Al Odah v. United States, 559 F.3d 539, 544 (D.C.Cir.2009).


Al-Bihani's many arguments present this court with two overarching questions regarding the detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval base. The first concerns whom the President can lawfully detain pursuant to statutes passed by Congress. The second asks what procedure is due to detainees challenging their detention in habeas corpus proceedings. The Supreme Court has provided scant guidance on these questions, consciously leaving the contours of the substantive and procedural law of detention open for lower courts to shape in a common law fashion. See Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507, 522 n. 1, 124 S.Ct. 2633, 159 L.Ed.2d 578 (2004) (plurality opinion of O'Connor, J.) ("The permissible bounds of the [enemy combatant] category will be defined by the lower courts as subsequent cases are presented to them."); Boumediene, 128 S.Ct. at 2276 ("We make no attempt to anticipate all of the evidentiary and access-to-counsel issues ... and the other remaining questions [that] are within the expertise and competence of the District Court to address in the first instance."). In this decision, we aim to narrow the legal uncertainty that clouds military detention.


Al-Bihani challenges the statutory legitimacy of his detention by advancing a number of arguments based upon the international laws of war. He first argues that relying on "support," or even "substantial

590 F.3d 871

support" of Al Qaeda or the Taliban as an independent basis for detention violates international law. As a result, such a standard should not be read into the ambiguous provisions of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), Pub.L. No. 107-40, § 2(a), 115 Stat. 224, 224 (2001) (reprinted at 50 U.S.C. § 1541 note), the Act empowering the President to respond to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Al-Bihani interprets international law to mean anyone not belonging to an official state military is a civilian, and civilians, he says, must commit a direct hostile act, such as firing a weapon in combat, before they can be lawfully detained. Because Al-Bihani did not commit such an act, he reasons his detention is unlawful. Next, he argues the members of the 55th Arab Brigade were not subject to attack or detention by U.S. Coalition forces under the laws of co-belligerency because the 55th, although allied with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, did not have the required opportunity to declare its neutrality in the fight against the United States. His third argument is that the conflict in which he was detained, an international war between the United States and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, officially ended when the Taliban lost control of the Afghan government. Thus, absent a determination of future dangerousness, he must be released. See Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (Third Geneva Convention) art. 118, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T. 3316, 75 U.N.T.S. 135. Lastly, Al-Bihani posits a type of "clean hands" theory by which any authority the government has to...

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