4 Men Cleared of Terrorism Links but Still Detained

By Josh White and Julie Tate
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 20, 2006

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.

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