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Amilitary judge on Guantanamo didn't even wait to get a request from the defense yesterday before tossing out the government's terrorism charges against a young Canadian Muslim held prisoner there for the past five years. The defendant, Omar Khadr, hadn't properly been found to be an "unlawful enemy combatant" by a previous panel - and this is of major significance because apparently neither has anyone else currently incarcerated at the U.S. prison camp.

The ruling is a vindication of sorts for the military tribunal system set up last year by the Bush administration and the previous Congress in an attempt to evade the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Constitution - but not in the way that its authors intended. Unlike an earlier kangaroo court at Guantanamo that was given the boot by the Supreme Court, these tribunals at least have trained military judges running them, and it turns out that due process means something after all.

"You now have adult supervision over these tribunals," Michael Greenberger, an expert in counterterrorism law at the University of Maryland, said yesterday. The ruling, he said, is "a tug on the yarn of a sweater that's going to unravel completely."

(The ruling might not affect the 14 prisoners transferred from secret CIA prisons last year, whose status is different from that of the majority of detainees, picked up after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan.)

The defendant, who had joined al-Qaida, was involved in a firefight with American troops in Afghanistan in July 2002, and he threw a grenade that killed a sergeant. He was 15 at the time. Seriously wounded himself, he was taken to Guantanamo, where, according to those who have met with him, he was subjected to repellent torture that - it almost goes without saying - must have yielded nothing in the way of useful information. Psychologically, he is broken.

Taking part in combat does not justify such treatment, but neither does criminal murder, for that matter. The abuse of Omar Khadr at the hands of Americans is a disgrace to the nation they claim to defend.

Yesterday's ruling, by Col. Peter Brownback, sets no one free. The government may appeal, or try to begin the charging process all over again. But a system that violates the laws of war and the right of habeas corpus is destined for the scrap heap. New challenges are working their way through the courts. The sooner this shameful, self-defeating and indecent torture camp is closed, the better.

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