Wednesday, June 8, 2005

U.S. NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — Fifteen prisoners here have been waiting at least three months to be released as U.S. officials seek assurances from their home countries that they won’t be “tortured or subject to persecution” upon their return.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said it is U.S. policy not to return detainees to their countries if it is believed “more likely than not that they’ll be tortured or subject to persecution.”

Defense and State Department officials refused to comment on where the 15 prisoners, whom special military tribunals last year classified as not being enemy combatants, are from or to provide specific details about the delay on their releases.

Military officials previously have said several Uighurs, Muslims from western China, asked not to be returned to China out of fear they would be persecuted by the Communist government.

Meanwhile, military officials here say that only about half of the 500-plus population of “enemy combatants” is participating in a new round of special military hearings to determine whether detainees still pose a threat to the U.S. or its allies.

Detainees who refuse to attend the new hearings, called Annual Review Boards (ARB), most likely do so at the advice of civilian lawyers who are fighting for the prisoners’ cases to be reviewed by U.S. federal courts — a right granted by a Supreme Court ruling on Guantanamo last year.

More than 200 detainees have departed the prison camp since its creation in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, including 23 of 38 ordered to be released after last year’s special Combatant Status Review Tribunals of more than 500 detainees at the prison for terrorism suspects. The yearlong review process ended three months ago.

Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, who heads the prison camp, said “most of” the 15 inmates awaiting release are detained together in a part of the maximum security prison camp where they are allowed a few comforts not bestowed on the rest of the population such as the opportunity to eat together communally and watch military-approved videos such as “Finding Nemo.”

“One of the non-enemy combatants,” according to Gen. Hood, “has not complied with instructions from the security force and so we removed him from that other group and he’ll be held separately until we receive orders to return him to his country of origin.”

Asked why the detainees, whom the Defense Department has deemed as innocent, have not been moved to a less controversial prison than Guantanamo, perhaps to a holding facility where they may make a phone call or received visitors, Mr. Whitman said: “It’s an interesting question but it’s not one that I’m prepared to address.”

As for the new round of hearings, military officials refused to give a specific number of detainees who have agreed to attend their hearing.

“Approximately 50 percent,” said Navy Capt. Eric Kaniut, a spokesman here, who acknowledged that, as of Friday, 15 consecutive hearings had been held with no detainee present.

Human rights groups and lawyers who have filed habeas corpus petitions in federal court on behalf of more than 100 of the detainees say that the ARB hearings, about 120 of which have been held so far, unfairly stack the deck against the detainees.

When a detainee does attend, a panel of military officials, concealing their name tags with black tape, read a “sanitized” list of charges against the detainee. The prisoner is allowed to respond and is then moved to another room while the anonymous military officials pore over a “classified” version of evidence withheld from him.

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