No Explanation Or Timetable for Release Given
By Josh White and Julie Tate
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 20, 2006; Page A18
The May 5 release of Chinese Muslims from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, leaves four men there who have been cleared of all connections to terrorism but continue to live in a legal limbo, with no indication of when they will be freed, according to the captives’ attorneys and military documents.
The government considers the men ready for outright release — "no longer enemy combatants" (NLECs) in military jargon. In fact, 38 detainees, 5 percent of the 759 prisoners ever held at Guantanamo Bay, have officially earned NLEC status since the island prison opened in early 2002.
They are men such as Zakirjan Hassam, an Uzbek refugee who was sold to U.S. forces in Afghanistan for $5,000 in May 2002 by people he mistakenly believed would shelter him. He ended up in Guantanamo Bay the following month and is still there today.
According to the U.S. military, Hassam is not an enemy, and a military tribunal decided in 2004 that his stay at Guantanamo Bay had been based on inaccurate information. There is no evidence that Hassam took up arms against anyone or that he ever supported terrorism, and his only apparent link to alleged terrorist groups were conversations with fellow detainees during his imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, according to testimony by Hassam that is not disputed by the government.
"He’s lost four years of his life for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and for being sold to U.S. forces," said Christopher Moore, a New York lawyer who represents Hassam.
Earlier this month, the government released five Chinese Uighurs who were among the last nine NLECs at Guantanamo Bay. After years of detention and, ultimately, government efforts to find them a home in a third country, the men were sent to Albania. The U.S. had feared that they would be jailed or tortured if returned to China.
Beijing, which considers Uighur separatists to be terrorists, demanded that they be returned.
The accounts of NLECs, contained in hearing transcripts, show that many were rounded up by profiteers along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and sold to U.S. or Northern Alliance forces. Some were Arabs who stood out in local populations, while others were arrested by overzealous Pakistani police forces seeking to cooperate with the U.S. effort to root out terrorists. The Uighurs were in transit to other countries or training for action against the Chinese government.
"In Afghanistan they heard that American forces are providing $25,000 to capture each Arab and $15,000 to capture each Afghan," Haji Shahzada, an Afghan NLEC who was released last year, told his military tribunal.
The NLECs are from 14 countries. One was captured in Mexico. Half are from Afghanistan, with the others from Pakistan, France, the Maldives, Jordan, Sudan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and China.
"Nobody ever asked who I am, what did I do, or where did I live," said Padsha Wazir, an Afghan detainee who was released. "They just handcuff me. . . . It has been three years, and it shouldn’t take that long for Americans to find the truth."
In fact, Pentagon officials say that 121 of the approximately 460 detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay are now eligible for release or transfer to the custody of their home countries. The government still considers 104 of them threats to the United States and its allies. They are scheduled to be returned to the control of other nations, where they probably would be imprisoned. Many are waiting to go to Afghanistan, where the United States is helping to build a prison for some of them.
U.S. military officials have decided that they can free 13 other detainees, though they have not been given NLEC status. The remaining four are NLECs. But there are no immediate plans to release them.
Just this week, 15 other detainees were released into the custody of the Saudi government.
"At Guantanamo, the United States only holds enemy combatants that were members of or supporting Taliban, al-Qaeda and associated forces," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, who added that detainees’ status is regularly reviewed. "We have no interest in detaining anyone longer than necessary."
The 38 NLECs earned their status through the military’s Combatant Status Review Tribunal process between August 2004 and March 2005. Those hearings allowed detainees to learn the unclassified allegations against them and to tell their personal stories to a panel of military officials.
While their identities have not been released, The Washington Post obtained the NLECs’ testimony, with names redacted, through a Freedom of Information Act request and compared it to the testimony of named detainees released by the Pentagon to the Associated Press in March.
Mustaq Ali Patel, a French detainee who was released in March 2005, told his hearing panel that he was simply trying to visit Afghanistan when he was arrested at the Iranian border. He said he was beaten by Afghan government officials who threatened to kill him if he did not say he was a Saudi citizen.
"I just want to say that I want to go home, and please set me free," Patel told his captors. "I have nothing to do with this; there’s nothing more they could’ve written badly about me, except that I lied."
Gordon, the Pentagon spokesman, said that "everyone who is or has been detained at Guantanamo was sent there for a valid reason." He noted that of the 10,000 people captured in and around Afghanistan since 2002, fewer than 10 percent have ended up at Guantanamo Bay.
But many cases take years to resolve.
Fethi Boucetta, for example, is an Algerian national who was arrested in Pakistan when local authorities came looking for another man. According to his tribunal records, Boucetta sought asylum in Pakistan in 1996 after leaving Algeria to avoid military service. A doctor who was teaching at an embassy in Pakistan, Boucetta had not entered Afghanistan after 1992 and told a military representative that he did not organize or belong to any extremist groups, as U.S. officials alleged.
"They went to his house and asked to speak with somebody else, and Fethi said he didn’t know that person and that he wasn’t there," said Danielle R. Voorhees, a U.S. lawyer representing Boucetta, who is still held at Guantanamo Bay. "Pakistani police came back with Americans in plain clothes, and they said they wanted to question him. That’s when he was arrested."
According to his attorneys, Boucetta was told in May 2005 that he was no longer considered an enemy combatant and could go home, but he has learned nothing since of efforts to have him released. His first contact with his wife in Algeria in four years was a telephone conversation in late April.
"It’s easy for us to say ‘Just release him,’ but it’s a difficult situation," said Don Degnan, another lawyer who represents Boucetta. "There’s not a lot of First World countries that want a Guantanamo detainee released into their country."
Lawyers from the Justice Department have told federal judges that there are continuous discussions with other nations about transferring detainees but that the government has a strict policy of not releasing them to countries likely to mistreat them. The same lawyers have said that they do not want any of the men, even those not considered threats, released in the United States.
In one unusual NLEC case, lawyers have asked federal courts to order the government not to release their client so that he will not be sent to his native Egypt, where they fear he would be arrested, jailed and possibly tortured.
Late last year, Justice Department lawyers said that Ala Abdel Maqsud Muhammad Salim, an NLEC still held at Guantanamo Bay, would be released to Egypt. But, in January, they filed a motion stating that new information warranting further investigation had resulted in there no longer being "immediate plans to transfer, repatriate, or release" him.
Salim — also referred to in documents as Alladeen — was born in Egypt in 1967 and spent his first 22 years there, a period that included several arrests that never resulted in charges, according to briefs filed by his Washington-based attorney, Carol Elder Bruce. He left Egypt for Saudi Arabia in 1989 and later went to Pakistan, where he worked for the Islamic Relief Organization distributing aid to Afghanistan. He was arrested by Pakistani authorities in 2002 and transferred to U.S. custody; he was later sent to Guantanamo Bay.
At Guantanamo Bay, Bruce asserts in legal papers, Salim was interrogated by Egyptian officials who chained him to the floor and threatened to harm him when he is released. "We will take you somewhere and they will never see you again," Bruce wrote, quoting Salim’s interaction with the Egyptian delegation.
In a November hearing, U.S. District Judge James Robertson expressed concern that the United States would "release" Salim to Egypt, where he could face pressure from the government because he had been detained at Guantanamo Bay.