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Ahilan Nadarajah was detained as a terrorism suspect for nearly five years before he got to argue his case before the Ninth Circuit. It only took a three-judge panel 10 days to order his release. In a unanimous decision Friday, Judge Sidney Thomas wrote that federal immigration officials can’t detain an asylum seeker indefinitely after an immigration court orders his release. Thomas wrote that the government’s interpretation that a Supreme Court opinion allowed indefinite detention was “patently absurd.” “The general immigration detention statutes do not authorize the Attorney General to incarcerate detainees for an indefinite period,” Thomas wrote. He was joined by Judge Richard Tallman and Senior U.S. District Judge James Fitzgerald of the District of Alaska, who sat by designation. “By any analysis,” Thomas wrote, “a five-year period of confinement of an alien who has not been charged with any crime, and who has won relief at every administrative level, is unreasonable under the standards set forth by the Supreme Court. Nor are we persuaded by the government’s argument that because the Attorney General will someday review Nadarajah’s case, his detention will at some point end, and so he is not being held indefinitely. No one can satisfactorily assure us as to when that day will arrive. Meanwhile, petitioner remains in detention.” Nadarajah’s lawyer, Ahilan Arulanantham of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, argued the case to the panel on March 7, and asked the judges to rule quickly, given the long detention at issue. “We’re very pleased with it,” Arulanantham said Friday. “The court was concerned, like the immigration courts and all the courts who heard it in the United States, that the government was wrong. “Because these are immigration courts,” Arulanantham said, “the government basically said, ‘we can resist their findings.’” A Justice Department spokeswoman would only say the case may continue to the Supreme Court. Immigration and appeals courts found that Nadarajah had been beaten, burned and hung upside down, his head submersed in gasoline, by Sri Lankan authorities. But the Justice Department insisted that Nadarajah was a member of the rebel Tamil Tigers, which it classifies as a terrorist group. And after missing two hearings, a Department of Homeland Security agent appeared in an immigration court to provide evidence of Nadarajah’s terrorist links. That evidence was based on information gathered from the Canadian Mounties and an anonymous letter writer who said it was unlikely that Nadarajah could have left the area of Sri Lanka where he had lived without the permission of the Tamil Tigers. An informant had also said that Nadarajah made a call from jail ordering a murder. An immigration judge, unconvinced, ruled in Nadarajah’s favor. But immigration officials refused to release him, even after he posted $20,000 bail. Thomas noted that Congress has set up special avenues for the Justice Department to seek prolonged detention of terrorists, which were not taken in Nadarajah’s case. “Indeed, the government does not claim that the detention provisions for terrorists under the Patriot Act justify Nadarajah’s detention,” Thomas wrote. “Given that Congress has placed specific limits on the Attorney General’s authority to detain suspected terrorists, those statutory provisions must govern such detentions, instead of the general detention provisions that apply to all aliens coming into the United States,” he continued. The case, Nadarajah v. Gonzales, is 06 C.D.O.S. 2290.

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