IMAGE: PRISONERS AT GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA
Shane T. McCoy  /  U.S. Navy via AP file
Muslim prisoners in orange jumpsuits sat in a holding area under the watchful eyes of military police at Camp X-Ray in January 2002.
NBC News and news services
updated 1/29/2004 5:53:19 PM ET 2004-01-29T22:53:19

Three juveniles have been released from the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and returned home after more than a year in captivity, the Defense Department announced Thursday.

The three boys, believed to range in age from 13 to 15, were captured in Afghanistan and held as enemy combatants, military officials told NBC News on condition of anonymity. They said that because the youths would not or could not tell their captors how old they were, the military conducted bone scans to determine their approximate ages.

The boys were sent back to their home country, the Defense Department said. It would not identify the country, but a U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the youngsters were returned to Afghanistan.

Two of the boys were captured during U.S. and allied raids on Taliban camps in Afghanistan; the third was captured trying to obtain weapons for the Taliban, the Defense Department said. All three had arrived at the Guantanamo prison in February 2003, a spokeswoman at the prison said.

Military officials said it had been determined that the boys no longer posed a threat to the United States. They have no further value as interrogation subjects and are not going to be tried by the U.S. government for any crimes, the military said.

Cause cèlébre for rights groups
Human rights groups had campaigned for their release for some time, saying the long separation from their families was hurting the boys. In August, the general running Guantanamo agreed that they should be sent home but said he was awaiting orders from the Defense Department and other government agencies.

Vienna Colucci, an international justice specialist with Amnesty International, welcomed the boys’ release but said the U.S. government violated international norms by keeping them.

“It certainly should not have gone on this long,” she said of their detention. “It’s not at all in compliance with the basic principles that guide the treatment of juveniles.”

Those principles include access to their parents and attorneys, she said.

Aid groups will help resettle them in their home country, the Defense Department said.

The U.S. officials said they believed that none of the about 660 other detainees at the camp are younger than 16, but they stood fast to the U.S. position that any remaining juveniles would not be released unless it was determined that they no longer presented a threat or were no longer of any intelligence value. 

Up to two dozen may be freed soon
Pierre-Richard Prosper, the U.S. special ambassador on war crimes presaged the release Wednesday, saying as many as two dozen Guantanamo prisoners could be freed soon.

Prosper said arrangements were under way, but he did not want to say what nationalities the prisoners were or when they would be released.

“We have made agreements with these countries that we wait for them to do the announcements,” Prosper told journalists attending a conference in Stockholm, Sweden, on preventing genocide.

About 660 suspected Taliban and al-Qaida members have been held at the Navy base Guantanamo Bay since they were captured during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, which began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Prosper said about 80 of them who were deemed no threat to security were released last year.

The detentions without trial have drawn worldwide criticism from governments and human rights groups concerned about the prisoners’ legal status and conditions in the camp.

Supreme Court blocks contact
Meanwhile, the Bush administration won a victory Wednesday in its bid to keep the prisoners in isolation when the Supreme Court stepped in to prevent a lower court from communicating with a Guantanamo prisoner.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor granted a request from the Bush administration to prevent the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from notifying the detainee of its ruling in December that Guantanamo prisoners should be allowed to see lawyers and have access to courts.

O’Connor, who has jurisdiction over appeals from the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit, said the high court could reconsider after it heard from lawyers for the detainee, Falen Gherebi.

Solicitor General Theodore Olson asked the justices Wednesday to block any developments in a class-action case over treatment of the Guantanamo detainees until the Supreme Court they this year, in a separate case, whether Guantanamo detainees may contest their captivity in U.S. courts.

The Supreme Court announced in November that it would consider appeals on behalf of Guantanamo inmates. A month later, a panel of the 9th Circuit issued the ruling in favor of Gherebi, a Libyan captured in Afghanistan.

National security is at stake, Olson argued in an emergency filing, because communication with the prisoner would “interfere with the military’s efforts to obtain intelligence from Gherebi and other Guantanamo detainees related to the ongoing war against terrorism.”

‘This has been going on for 2½ years’
Mark Drumbl, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., said the argument was a weak one, given the passage of time.

“This has been going on for 2½ years,” he said. “Any information they had might be fairly stale now.”

He said the government had a legitimate claim that there were overlapping issues between the case in San Francisco and the pending appeal at the high court.

Olson said the appeals court refused last week to stop proceedings in the case, which the administration is appealing to the Supreme Court.

In addition to the Guantanamo case, the Supreme Court is considering a case testing the legal rights of U.S. citizens caught overseas in the war on terrorism and may also hear an appeal involving the rights of a U.S. terror suspect caught in the United States.

NBC News Jim Miklaszewski, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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