The Pentagon plans to release nearly a third of those held at the prison for terrorism suspects here because they pose no threat to U.S. security, an official of the war crimes tribunal said Monday.
Charges are pending against about two dozen of the remaining prisoners, the chief prosecutor said. But he left unclear why the rest face neither imminent freedom nor a day in court after as many as four years in custody.
Only 10 of the roughly 490 alleged “enemy combatants” currently detained at the facility have been charged; none has been charged with a capital offense.
That leaves the majority of the U.S. government’s prisoners from the war on terrorism in limbo and its war crimes tribunal exposed to allegations by international 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 also determined that they could provide no further intelligence. It was unclear when or where the detainees would be released.
About 250 detainees have been released since the prison camps were established in 2002.
Longtime critics of the Guantanamo facility said the announcement of the planned release marked a milestone in the four years the base had held suspected terrorists.
The prison has been dogged by allegations of torture and has brought choruses of international condemnation, including calls from a United Nations panel and the European Parliament to shut it down.
The detainees determined by last year’s Administrative Review Boards to pose no threat to U.S. national security are “no longer enemy combatants,” explained Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler of the Pentagon office in charge of reviewing detainee status.
He contended that the men’s detention had been justified. Battlefield commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan had determined when the men were arrested that they were a threat to U.S. forces in the region, he said.
“Every detainee who came to the Combatant Status Review Tribunals went though multiple reviews” before their arrival at Guantanamo, Peppler said.
Although Peppler said the majority would be leaving the island “in the near future,” he noted that some detainees who had been cleared might remain until an appropriate release site could be found. The government decided, for example, that minority Muslim Uighurs from China should not be handed over to their governments because they could face persecution, torture or execution.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said the full significance of freeing the detainees could not be assessed until their fates were clear. Because of pressure from their governments, most European nationals have been released or transferred.
Many of the remaining detainees are from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, Malinowski said.
Afghanistan has a process for granting amnesty to low-level Taliban members and prosecuting senior leaders of the old regime, making it an appropriate place to release the prisoners, he said.
“If they have committed crimes, we support their prosecution,” Malinowski said. “If their crime was that they were Taliban, then they should be sent back to Afghanistan.” Officials in Guantanamo would not release any information about the nationalities of the men cleared for release.
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 the majority 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.
A defense lawyer for one Saudi suspect said the government in Riyadh was doing little to expedite repatriation of its nationals.
“I believe the Saudi government could do much more like the British government has done” to take its citizens home, said Lt. Col. Bryan Boyles, whose client, Jabran Said bin Al-Qahtani, was to make his first appearance before the tribunal today.
The Army defense lawyer said Riyadh was being “unhelpful” by refusing to get involved.
He noted that the British government’s activism had resulted in the transfer and release of all British suspects who had passed through the prison network created by President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Malinowksi of Human Rights Watch said transferring detainees into Saudi custody was troublesome.
“Saudi Arabia is not a struggling democracy,” he said. “Anyone sent to a Saudi prison ... is in a worse place than Guantanamo.”
Announcement of the pending releases coincided with a considerable drop in the number of detainees likely to be charged, suggesting that the U.S. government either lacks the evidence to convict more or -- as defense lawyers and human rights monitors contend -- feels little pressure to accord the terror suspects a speedy trial or due process.
Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor, said earlier this month that the government was actively pursuing charges against about 70 additional prisoners.
But in a meeting with journalists on Monday, he said charges would be forthcoming on “about two dozen” other jailed suspects, including some who would face the death penalty.
Davis was responding to media questions as to why so few of the detainees -- all described by defense attorneys as “small fry” -- have been formally charged as the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks approaches.
“We’re working on about two dozen additional cases,” Davis said.
“I anticipate some of these will certainly present the possibility of death penalty cases.”
The man steering the government’s cases against war-crimes suspects insisted that some big fish had been ensnared in the U.S. counter-terrorism net.
“I think it’s pretty significant when you’re specifically training to build bombs to kill coalition forces,” he said of three men who will appear before the tribunal this week on charges of having plotted to build remote-controlled explosive devices at an alleged Al Qaeda safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan.
Davis conceded, though, that “they’re certainly not Osama bin Laden, if you look at that as the top of the pyramid.”
Boyles, Al-Qahtani’s lawyer, expressed bafflement at the government’s proceedings.
“I can’t for the life of me figure out how they picked the people they’ve picked,” he said. “If these are the worst of the worst, as the secretary of Defense alleges, then someone other than Osama bin Laden’s chauffeur would be here.”
He was referring to Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemen native whose challenge of the Guantanamo tribunal’s legality is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and is expected to be decided in late June.
The high court could take one of three paths, Davis noted: uphold the whole process, order modifications or deem the entire Guantanamo tribunal illegitimate.
Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.