82 Inmates Cleared but Still Held at Guantanamo

A detainee looks through fencing in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, where 385 prisoners remain more than five years after the facility opened.
A detainee looks through fencing in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, where 385 prisoners remain more than five years after the facility opened. (By Brennan Linsley -- Associated Press)

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 29, 2007

LONDON -- More than a fifth of the approximately 385 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been cleared for release but may have to wait months or years for their freedom because U.S. officials are finding it increasingly difficult to line up places to send them, according to Bush administration officials and defense lawyers.

Since February, the Pentagon has notified about 85 inmates or their attorneys that they are eligible to leave after being cleared by military review panels. But only a handful have gone home, including a Moroccan and an Afghan who were released Tuesday. Eighty-two remain at Guantanamo and face indefinite waits as U.S. officials struggle to figure out when and where to deport them, and under what conditions.

The delays illustrate how much harder it will be to empty the prison at Guantanamo than it was to fill it after it opened in January 2002 to detain fighters captured in Afghanistan and terrorism suspects captured overseas.

In many cases, the prisoners' countries do not want them back. Yemen, for instance, has balked at accepting some of the 106 Yemeni nationals at Guantanamo by challenging the legality of their citizenship.

Another major obstacle: U.S. laws that prevent the deportation of people to countries where they could face torture or other human rights abuses, as in the case of 17 Chinese Muslim separatists who have been cleared for release but fear they could be executed for political reasons if returned to China.

Compounding the problem are persistent refusals by the United States, its European allies and other countries to grant asylum to prisoners who are stateless or have no place to go.

"In general, most countries simply do not want to help," said John B. Bellinger III, legal adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "Countries believe this is not their problem. They think they didn't contribute to Guantanamo, and therefore they don't have to be part of the solution."

A case in point is Ahmed Belbacha, 37, an Algerian who worked as a hotel waiter in Britain but has been locked up at Guantanamo for five years. The Pentagon has alleged that Belbacha met al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden twice and received weapons training in Afghanistan. His attorneys dispute the charges and say he was rounded up with other innocents in Pakistan in early 2002.

On Feb. 22, without explanation, the Pentagon notified Belbacha's lawyers in London that he had been approved to leave Guantanamo. Despite entreaties from the State Department, however, the British government has refused to accept Belbacha and five other immigrants who had lived in the country, because they lack British citizenship.

This month, Clint Williamson, the State Department's ambassador for war crimes, visited Algiers to discuss possible arrangements for the return of two dozen Algerians who remain at Guantanamo, including Belbacha, but no breakthroughs were reported. That country has been slow to accept its citizens.

Zachary Katznelson, a lawyer who represents Belbacha and several other prisoners who have been cleared, said defense attorneys have tried to speed up the process by contacting foreign governments to see if there are any specific obstacles to the return of their clients. In many cases, he said, the prisoners and officials in their home countries are willing to approve the transfer, but the delays persist.

"The holdup is a mystery to me, frankly," said Katznelson, senior counsel for Reprieve, a British legal defense fund. "If the U.S. has cleared these people and they want to go back, I don't understand why they can't just put them on a plane."


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