A Pakistani court ruled yesterday that the five Virginia men arrested in that country cannot be deported until a judge reviews the case, potentially complicating the handover of the men to U.S. authorities.
The high court in Lahore, the city where the Americans are being held, gave the Pakistani government until Thursday to submit a detailed report about the case, and it barred the FBI from participating in the investigation.
The court ruled on a petition from human-rights activist Khalid Khawaja, known for filing legal briefs on behalf of terrorism suspects.
Pakistani officials played down the ruling, saying they continued to coordinate with U.S. officials and that the five would eventually be returned to the United States to face possible charges.
"We've had excellent cooperation with the Pakistani authorities both on the diplomatic side and on the law enforcement side," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.
The five young men, all Muslims from the Alexandria area, were arrested last Tuesday near Lahore and are being investigated for possible terrorist ties. No one has been charged.
Experts said the court ruling reflected Pakistanis' sensitivity to the growing U.S. troop presence in the region and the assertiveness of the country's increasingly independent judiciary.
"This will slow down any deportation," said Tayyab Mahmud, an expert on Pakistani and international law at Seattle University's law school. "It will complicate it."
The men, ages 18 to 24, flew to Pakistan just after Thanksgiving without telling their families, triggering a worldwide missing-persons case.
The five - Ramy Zamzam, 22; Ahmad Minni, 20; Umar Chaudhry, 24; Waqar Khan, 22; and Aman Hassan Yemer, 18 - were transferred Saturday from Sargodha to Lahore, where they were being questioned by the FBI.
Pakistani police and intelligence officials have said the men were in contact for months with a Taliban recruiter and were trying to join up with al-Qaeda.
They were hoping to work with jihadist groups and battle U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Pakistani officials said.
U.S. law enforcement officials are considering criminal charges against the men but have said nothing is imminent. The men's friends and spiritual advisers in Virginia have said they never saw any signs of radical activities or beliefs.