An Australian terrorism suspect who says he was tortured in an Egyptian jail after being sent there by the United States will be released from custody in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, along with the last four British citizens held there, the Pentagon announced yesterday.
Mamdouh Habib will be flown to Australia, while the four British citizens will be transferred to their home country. Authorities in those two countries have promised to investigate allegations against the men but have made no commitment to hold them indefinitely or prosecute them, according to a senior administration official involved in negotiations for the release.
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Video: Five Guantanamo Bay prisoners will be released within weeks by the United States.
As recently as November, the Defense Department accused all five of being hard-core terrorists, either as associates of al Qaeda or aspiring fighters who sought to harm Americans.
Most of the approximately 550 detainees at Guantanamo are believed to have been seized in Afghanistan. But four of the five men on the new release list were arrested in other countries and turned over to U.S. custody.
Many foreign governments have lobbied the United States to release citizens of their countries held at Guantanamo Bay. Those governments have often quickly released the men after questioning them on their return home, saying there was no legal ground to hold them. U.S. officials say five or 10 such people have returned to terrorist activities.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing that "it isn't easy" to make judgments about detainee releases. "And indeed," he said, "the United States government has made poor judgments in some instances, where people have been released and ended up back on the battlefield and had to be captured or killed."
Attorneys for some of the five suspects who are to leave Cuba contended Tuesday that U.S. authorities were freeing them out of embarrassment over allegations that they were tortured in detention.
The senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, denied that assertion, saying the releases were the result of long negotiations with home governments eager to bring back their citizens.
He said that to address U.S. security concerns, British authorities had agreed that the men would not be allowed to travel outside the country. "The U.K. has agreed to control their movements, particularly travel," he said. Britain and Australia may also keep the men under surveillance if they are freed.
The decision to release the four Britons followed months of what Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described to Parliament on Tuesday as "intense and complex discussions" with American officials over U.S. security concerns, including direct discussions between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush.
The four had been the focus at home of a long human rights campaign. Supporters view them as proof that the Bush administration has violated international law in its war on terrorism.
The U.S. government accused Habib of training several of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers in martial arts and of planning separately to hijack a plane. The military also said he admitted that he once contacted members of the radical group Hezbollah about helping with jihad in Afghanistan and helped transfer chemical weapons to a compound in Kabul.
In documents filed in federal court in Washington, Habib said he made several false statements while being tortured in an Egyptian prison, where the United States had sent him after his arrest in Pakistan in 2001. He said that while there he was nearly drowned, given electric shocks, hung from his arms in serial torture sessions and questioned repeatedly by interrogators with American accents.
The British detainees include Feroz Abbasi, 24, a South London resident who a U.S. military panel last fall ruled was an al Qaeda member who had volunteered for a suicide mission. Abbasi, who was captured in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban rulers in late 2001, denied the allegation. He was not allowed to have an attorney at the military hearing.