Guantanamo prisoner incorrectly detained

REUTERS

Wed 9 September, 2004

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon has determined for the first time that one of the nearly 600 prisoners held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay was incorrectly classified as an "enemy combatant" and he will be returned to his home country, the Navy secretary says.

Navy Secretary Gordon England refused to identify the prisoner or his nationality, but a Pentagon spokeswoman said the man had been caught in May 2002 in Afghanistan.

England said on Wednesday a military panel at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had determined the man was not an enemy combatant, the status under which foreign terrorism suspects have been detained at the remote base.

The State Department has been asked to arrange for the man's return to his country within days or weeks, said England, who is in charge of the process.

Human rights groups have criticised the United States for indefinitely detaining prisoners at the base, most without charges or legal representation. Critics call the base a "le gal black hole."

England did not say what persuaded the three-member Combatant Status Review Tribunal and Rear Adm. James McGarrah, the official who reviewed the panel's decision, that the man was not an enemy combatant.

England said the man appeared at a hearing, but did not call any witnesses. Prisoners were not allowed lawyers at the hearings.

The detainee was pleased with the decision and has been placed in a "transition facility" at the base awaiting departure, said England, adding he did not think the United States would give him any compensation.

'VERY BAD PEOPLE'

Questioned at a Pentagon briefing, England did not directly answer whether the prisoner was an innocent man mistakenly imprisoned at Guantanamo.

"We have a lot of very bad people at Gitmo," he said, using the military nickname for the base.

"We do not want to keep anyone that we shouldn't keep," he said, but there was "some risk" to releasing the wrong prisoners because some of those previously freed had come back to fight U.S. forces.

Jumana Musa, an Amnesty International official who observed recent hearings in separate criminal proceedings at Guantanamo, said the decision acknowledged that the man had languished in a prison cell for two years without justification.

"This is just further evidence of the serious errors that occur when you ignore basic human rights and standards of international humanitarian law."

The Pentagon has defined an enemy combatant as a person "who was part of or supporting Taliban or al Qaeda forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. This includes any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported hostilities in aid of enemy armed forces."

Another 29 prisoners whose cases have been reviewed by the tribunals, starting last month, were determined to be enemy combatants, England said.

The Pentagon created the tribunals after a June Supreme Court ruling that Guantanamo prisoners could go to U.S. courts to se ek their freedom.

The Guantanamo prisoners were classified as enemy combatants rather than prisoners of war, which would have a given them a host of legal rights under international law.

About 585 foreign prisoners are being held at the base, most captured in Afghanistan. Hearings have been held for 25 other prisoners but no final decisions reached, England said.

Under other procedures, 156 other Guantanamo prisoners have been released or repatriated to their home countries for further detention, the Pentagon said.