At Guantanamo, Caught in a Legal Trap

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 21, 2006

SARAJEVO, Bosnia -- On Jan. 18, 2002, six men suspected of plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy were seized here by U.S. troops and flown to Cuba, where they became some of the first arrivals at the Pentagon's new prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The seizure was ordered by senior U.S. officials in defiance of rulings by top courts in Bosnia that the men were entitled to their freedom and could not be deported. Today, more than four years later, the six remain locked up at Guantanamo, even though the original allegations about the embassy attack have been discredited and dropped, records show.

In 2004, Bosnian prosecutors and police formally exonerated the six men after a lengthy criminal investigation. Last year, the Bosnian prime minister asked the Bush administration to release them, calling the case a miscarriage of justice.

The men came from Algeria to Bosnia during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. Most were former Muslim fighters who became humanitarian aid workers after the war. They remain imprisoned because the U.S. military still classifies them as "enemy combatants" in the fight against terrorism. A review of thousands of pages of military and civilian court documents, however, shows that many reasons given for the designation are based on flawed or dubious evidence.

The case illustrates how difficult it will be to meet President Bush's stated goal to close Guantanamo as quickly as possible. About 450 detainees remain. While some face military commissions that could sentence them to long prison terms, most are expected to be released to their home countries.

Senior Bosnian officials said they have been told by U.S. diplomats that the six Algerians will never be allowed to return to Bosnia, which had granted dual citizenship to most of the men before their seizure. Instead, U.S. officials have pressed Algeria to take back the prisoners on the condition that they be confined or kept under surveillance there. So far, the Algerian government has balked.

The detainees and their lawyers say they are caught in a trap. They contend that the Pentagon knows the men are not guilty but is unwilling to let them go free because that would be an acknowledgment of a grave error.

"The Americans did not want to return me to Bosnia. Why? Because the Americans claimed to have evidence against me. I can't be returned and found innocent," Mustafa Ait Idr, one of the six Algerians, told a military tribunal at Guantanamo in October 2004, according to a transcript of the hearing.

"So now I am sitting here in Cuba and I do not know why. I do not know what is happening outside; I do not know. But what I do know is that this is a game."

A Post-Sept. 11 Roundup

In early October 2001, the United States was still reeling from the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. intelligence agents around the globe worked frantically to chase down leads about Islamic radicals who might pose a threat.

Bosnia was seen as a potential haven. Large numbers of Muslim volunteer fighters had remained in the country, marrying Bosnian women, after the war. Some worked for Islamic charities, which U.S. investigators believed were often fronts for money-laundering rackets by terrorist groups.

One foreign fighter whom intelligence operatives wanted to find was an Algerian known only by the nickname Abu Maali. A veteran of conflicts in Algeria, Afghanistan and the Balkans, he was thought to be close to al-Qaeda.

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