Saudi Arabia Routinely Frees Detainees
Sunday, March 18, 2007
In official documents, Detainee No. 266 was an accused al-Qaeda member who refused to speak to his captors, much less admit or deny terrorism links. His Saudi countryman, Detainee No. 264, was a relief worker and self-described admirer of Americans who was handed over to U.S. forces by Pakistani policemen seeking to collect a bounty.
On June 24, both men were released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the custody of Saudi Arabia. Which promptly freed them.
The two are among scores of Guantanamo detainees who have been quietly repatriated in the past three years amid growing pressure from their home countries and international human rights advocates. Now, a new analysis by lawyers who have represented detainees says U.S. decisions undermine the government's own claims about the threat posed by many of the prison camp's residents, some of whom are approaching their fifth year of detention without formal charges or trials.
The analysis, based on government case files for Saudi detainees sent home over the past three years, shows inmates being systematically freed from custody within weeks of their return. It also raises questions on how detainees are selected for release: While some of the repatriated Saudis were accused of lesser offenses -- such as working for charitable organizations with alleged ties to al-Qaeda -- others were released in spite of standing accusations that they belonged to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, or even fought against U.S. or coalition forces in Afghanistan, records show.
The case files also offer insight into the nature of U.S. evidence against the detainees. For example, in half the cases studied, the detainees were turned over to U.S. forces by Pakistani police or troops in return for financial rewards. Many others were accused of terrorism connections in part because their Arab nicknames matched those found in a computer database of al-Qaeda members, documents show.
"The credibility of many of these accusations is highly questionable," co-authors Anant Raut and Jill M. Friedman write in "The Saudi Repatriates Report," scheduled for release tomorrow. The report is a statistical analysis of the cases of 24 repatriated Saudis, a group representing nearly half of the 53 Saudi nationals released from Guantanamo Bay as of Feb. 1. The authors are members of the Washington office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, a law firm that has provided pro-bono representation for five Saudis detained at Guantanamo Bay. The law firm provided copies of the supporting documents to The Washington Post.
Pentagon officials, while declining to comment on the specific findings, said the U.S. government cannot control how other governments treat repatriated detainees, noting that the decisions often reflect internal political considerations. The Defense Department has sought to gradually reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo Bay, selecting for release certain detainees who were deemed either less threatening or less able to provide useful intelligence, officials said.
"We have no desire to be the world's jailer, or to hold detainees any longer than necessary," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman. He added: "While some have called for the closure of Guantanamo, none have put forth viable options for handling these dangerous men while preventing their return to terrorism."
The report is not the first to raise questions about custody decisions for detainees. In December, a survey by the Associated Press found that 84 percent of released detainees -- 205 out of 245 individuals whose cases could be tracked -- were set free after being released to the custody of their native countries.
Raut said he began the research because he wanted to find a logical explanation for why some detainees were being returned home while others face years of legal limbo without formal charges or prospects for a court hearing. Of the five Saudis represented by Raut's firm, only two have been discharged to Saudi custody.
"There are certainly bad people in Guantanamo Bay, but there are also other cases where it's hard to understand why the people are still there," said Raut, who has visited the detention camp three times. "We were struggling to find some rationality, something to comfort us that it wasn't just random. But we didn't find it."
In the report, Raut and Friedman said many of the U.S. attempts to link the detainees to terrorism groups were based on evidence they describe as circumstantial and "highly questionable," such as the travel routes they followed in flying commercially from one Middle East country to another. U.S. officials have associated certain travel routes with al-Qaeda, when in fact the routes "involve ordinary connecting flights in major international airports," the report states. With regard to accusations based on similar names, the report states: "This accusation appears to be based upon little more than similarities in the transliterations of a detainee's name and a name found on one of the harddrives."
Raut, in an interview, said he was most struck by the high percentage of Saudi detainees who had been captured and turned over by Pakistani forces. In effect, Raut said, for at least half of the group in the study, the United States "had no first-hand knowledge of their activities" in Afghanistan before their capture.