U.S. Struggles to Downsize Guantanamo

The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 8, 2007; 6:15 PM

-- The U.S. has cut the population of the Guantanamo Bay detention center to nearly half its peak in 2003 but is struggling to empty it further.

Faced with rising international pressure to close the military prison in Cuba, the U.S. has identified dozens of detainees who can be released or transferred to other countries. However, that was only the first step in a process so difficult it has slowed releases to a trickle.

Before it puts detainees on a plane, the U.S. must find a country to accept them. It also must obtain assurances the prisoners will be prevented from attacking the United States or its allies, and will not be tortured or face other treatment that violates international law.

Britain's new Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked Tuesday for the transfer of five British residents held at Guantanamo _ a change in policy that was welcomed by the Bush administration. Under his predecessor, Tony Blair, the British government would not accept the detainees since they are not citizens.

A senior U.S. defense official warned that officials will have to discuss appropriate security measures before the five sought by Britain can be transferred.

"These are extremely dangerous individuals and if they are sent back to the United Kingdom they could pose a risk if they are out on the street," said Sandra Hodgkinson, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs in an interview with The Associated Press.

However, for nearly all of the 80 Guantanamo detainees now cleared for release, the U.S. has either not been able to get the necessary assurances or their native countries refused to accept them, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday.

The U.S. has assurances and permission for only five, but their lawyers have filed legal petitions seeking to block their return, fearing they will be tortured when they return to their home countries.

"Repatriation has been extraordinarily challenging," Gordon said.

It is a challenge that will not end soon.

The U.S. holds about 360 men at Guantanamo on suspicion of terrorism or links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. Of that group, military officials say they expect to identify about another 70 who can be transferred or released. But they are likely to face the same hurdles.

The U.S. says it cannot release the rest: About 80 are expected to be tried for war crimes before military tribunals. Some 130 others are considered Islamic extremists who are too dangerous to release. However, there are no plans to prosecute them.

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