A US court on Monday halted the military trial of Osama bin Laden's personal driver, ruling it illegal in a major blow to the government's controversial handling of hundreds of war on terror detainees.
The US District Court in Washington DC suspended the military commission case against Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a 34-year-old Yemeni, being held at the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
While rights groups celebrated, the stunned US government scrambled to prepare an emergency appeal after Judge James Robertson said Hamdan, an alleged al-Qaeda member, should be given prisoner-of-war status until a "competent tribunal" can rule on his case.
A review tribunal at Guantanamo has already declared that Hamdan was properly declared an "enemy combatant" and so ineligible for most protection under the Geneva Convention. But the judge rejected this.
"Unless and until a competent tribunal determines that Hamdan is not entitled to prisoner-of-war status, he may be tried with the offenses for which he is charged only by court-martial," Robertson said.
The judge also said rules that restrict defendants' access to classified evidence against them also had to be rewritten.
The Hamdan decision will also apply to the approximately 550 other inmates at Guantanamo and government lawyers were quick to vow an appeal saying the ruling put terrorism on the same level as a legitimate war.
"We vigorously disagree with the court's decision, and will seek an emergency stay of the ruling and immediately appeal," Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said in a statement.
"By conferring protected legal status under the Geneva Conventions on members of al-Qaeda, the judge has put terrorism on the same legal footing as legitimate methods of waging war," Corallo said.
The ruling came as a preliminary hearing against Hamdan went ahead at Guantanamo and officials said it and other cases had been immediately suspended.
Hamdan was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001, in the military operation launched after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He has been held at Guantanamo since early 2002, for much of that time without access to a lawyer.
Hamdan's lawyers have sought to have the hearings ruled illegal in US courts, parallel to their defence before the commission.
The US military has said Hamdi is a member of al-Qaeda who was bin Laden's personal driver in Afghanistan. The Yemeni has denied being an al-Qaeda member.
He faces charges, including conspiracy to attack civilians and civilian targets and conspiracy to commit murder and terrorist acts.
Civil rights groups have condemned the military commissions because the panels are made up of military officers, many of whom have no judicial experience, and because defendants are excluded from hearings where classified evidence against them is raised.
"This is a clean victory," said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, a non-government group. "He [Hamdan] is entitled to a full trial in a proper military court and it doesn't get any better than that."
"This ruling rightly demolishes the Bush Administration's argument that the Geneva Conventions did not universally apply to prisoners detained in Afghanistan," Amnesty International said in a statement.
"This ruling should put the final nail into the coffin of the military commissions," said Jamie Fellner, director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. "They should never have been created in the first place, and their implementation has been a disaster."