U.S. to free 141 at Gitmo

30% of detainees ruled no threat

majority in limbo

April 25, 2006|By CAROL J. WILLIAMS | CAROL J. WILLIAMS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL STATION, Cuba -- The Pentagon plans to release nearly one-third of those held at the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists here because they pose no threat to national security, an official of the war crimes tribunal said yesterday.

Charges are pending against two dozen of the remaining 330 prisoners, the chief prosecutor said. But he left unclear why most will get neither quick freedom nor a day in court after being held up to four years without charges.

Only 10 of the roughly 490 alleged enemy combatants now detained at the U.S. facility have been charged so far, and none with capital offenses, leaving the majority of the U.S. government's prisoners from the war on terror in limbo and the war crimes tribunal exposed to allegations by human rights advocates that it is illegitimate and abusive.

The decision to release 141 detainees - the largest group to be reclassified and moved off the island - follows a yearlong review of their cases in which interrogators determined that the men hold no further intelligence value.

Longtime critics of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility said the release announced yesterday marked a significant milestone in the four years the base has been used as a prison for suspected terrorists. The prison has been dogged by allegations of torture and brought international condemnation, including calls from a United Nations panel and the European Parliament to shut it down.

Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said the full significance of freeing the 141 detainees could not be immediately assessed.

Because of pressure from allied governments, most European nationals at Guantanamo Bay have been released or transferred. Many of the remaining detainees, Malinowski said, are from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

Officials at Guantanamo would not release any information about the nationalities of the 141 men cleared for release.

Explaining the first comprehensive accounting of what happened to Guantanamo arrivals since the camps were established in January 2002, Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler of the Pentagon office in charge of reviewing detainee status said those deemed by last year's Administrative Review Boards to pose no threat to U.S. security are "no longer enemy combatants."

He insisted that the detainees were justly held in the past because battlefield commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan had determined at the time of their arrests that they were a threat to U.S. forces in the region.

While Peppler said the majority would be leaving the island "in the near future," he noted that some cleared of offenses worthy of prosecution might have to stay in detention until an appropriate release site can be found. For detainees such as Muslim Uighurs from China, the government has decided that they should not be handed over to their home governments for fear they would face persecution, torture or execution.

Pentagon officials have said previously that most of the men being held here were likely to be freed. The former chief of interrogations, Steve Rodriguez, said in January 2005 that most held no further intelligence value. Officials in Washington indicated last week that a group of about 120 Saudi prisoners could be released to their government. About 250 detainees have been released from the prison since 2002.

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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