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By Basil Katz
NEW YORK, May 16 (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Wednesday blocked enforcement of a recently enacted law's provision that authorizes indefinite military detention for those deemed to have "substantially supported" al Qaeda, the Taliban or "associated forces."
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan ruled in favor of a group of civilian activists and journalists who said they feared being detained under a section of the law, which was signed by U.S. President Barack Obama in December 2011.
"In the face of what could be indeterminate military detention, due process requires more," the judge said.
She added that it was in the public interest to reconsider the law so that "ordinary citizens are able to understand the scope of conduct that could subject them to indefinite military detention."
By issuing a preliminary injunction, the judge prevents the U.S. government from enforcing section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act's "Homeland Battlefield" provisions.
A spokeswoman for the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's office, which represents the government in this case, declined to comment on the ruling.
During day-long oral arguments in March, Forrest heard lawyers for former New York Times war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges and others argue that the law would have a "chilling effect" on their work.
"Can Hedges and others be detained for contacting al Qaeda or the Taliban as reporters?" Forrest asked the government at the hearing.
The judge said she worried at the government's reluctance at the March hearing to specify whether examples of the plaintiffs' activities - such as aiding the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks in the case of Brigitta Jonsdottir, a member of parliament in Iceland - would fall under the scope of the provision.
"Failure to be able to make such a representation... requires the court to assume that, in fact, the government takes the position that a wide swath of expressive and associational conduct is in fact encompassed by 1021," the judge wrote.
Hedges called the ruling "courageous" but said the judge "did what she was supposed to do" given that "the law is so clearly unconstitutional."
The government argued that section 1021 could not be singled out as being a new part of the 2011 law. Section 1021 should instead be considered "an affirmation" of the resolution passed in 2001 authorizing the use of force following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. (Reporting By Basil Katz; Editing by Peter Cooney and Cynthia Osterman)