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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)

Human rights groups have criticized the written assurances as unreliable. In March, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch issued a report on the fate of seven Russians who were released from Guantanamo three years ago, asserting that three of the men have been tortured since their return.

The watchdog group urged the U.S. government to find third-party countries willing to take Guantanamo inmates who are judged to be at risk for political persecution. U.S. officials countered that they have tried to do that for years, with virtually no success.

Only one country has been willing to accept Guantanamo prisoners who had never previously set foot inside its borders. Last year, after prodding by the State Department, the Balkan nation of Albania agreed to take five Chinese separatists who belong to an ethnic group known as Uighurs.

The men were captured in late 2001 after they crossed the Chinese border into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their attorneys said they were mistakenly taken into custody and had not taken up arms against U.S. forces. U.S. officials said dozens of countries refused to grant asylum to the Uighurs for fear of angering China, which considers them terrorists for leading a secession movement in the western province of Turkestan.

Seventeen other Uighurs who were caught in similar circumstances have been cleared for release but remain in Guantanamo because the State Department has been unable to find a home for them. Human rights groups have pressed the U.S. government to offer the men asylum, to no avail.

A senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the Bush administration had considered granting the Uighurs asylum but that the idea was nixed by the Department of Homeland Security. The Uighurs would be rejected under U.S. immigration law, the official said, because they once trained in armed camps and because their separatist front, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, was labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. government in 2002.

Attorneys for the Uighurs said their predicament has been compounded by the Pentagon's unwillingness to say they don't pose a national security risk to the U.S. government or its allies. In announcing that the Uighurs had been approved to leave Guantanamo, military officials made a point of noting that they had not been exonerated and were still classified as enemy combatants.

"It's not a distinction that makes sense at all," said Michael J. Sternhell, a New York lawyer whose firm represents four of the Uighurs. "It's a caveat that the Defense Department is offering to cover itself."

Some human rights advocates said the Bush administration could speed things up by asking the United Nations or another international body for help.

Manfred Nowak, an Austrian law professor who serves as the U.N. special monitor on torture, said European allies and other countries would continue to duck requests to accept released prisoners as long as the U.S. government approaches them separately. An international commission responsible for finding a solution, he said, might carry more weight.

"If the U.S. is willing to do something to close down Guantanamo, then it should be done in a cooperative manner with the international community," Nowak said. "It's a question of burden-sharing. Otherwise, every individual country that the U.S. approaches says, 'Why us?' "

Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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