msnbc.com news services
updated 9/8/2004 5:49:40 PM ET 2004-09-08T21:49:40

The Defense Department has determined for the first time that one of the nearly 600 prisoners at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was improperly held by the United States as an “enemy combatant” and will be released to his home country, the Navy secretary said Wednesday.

The secretary, Gordon England, refused to identify the prisoner or his nationality, but he said a military panel at Guantanamo Bay had determined that the man was not an enemy combatant, the status under which the Defense Department has held foreign terrorism suspects at the remote base.

England, who was in charge of the process, said the Defense Department had asked the State Department to arrange for the man’s return to his home country within days or weeks. A spokeswoman for the Defense Department said the man was caught in May 2002 in Afghanistan.

England said he did not believe the U.S. government would give the man any financial or other compensation.

Wartime civil liberties

Human rights groups have criticized the United States for holding prisoners at the base indefinitely, most of them without charges or legal representation, and critics called the base a “legal black hole.”

England did not reveal the information that persuaded the Combatant Status Review Tribunal and Rear Adm. James McGarrah, the official who reviewed the panel’s decision, that the man was not an enemy combatant.

England said the man appeared at a hearing at the base but did not call any witnesses. Prisoners were not allowed lawyers for the hearings.

‘Very bad people’
During a briefing at the Pentagon, England did not directly answer a question of whether the prisoner was an innocent man mistakenly swept up into U.S. detention and eventually imprisonment at Guantanamo.

“We have a lot of very bad people at Gitmo,” England said, using the military nickname for the base.

“We do not want to keep anyone that we shouldn’t keep,” he added, but he said there was “some risk” to releasing the wrong prisoners because some who previously were set free have come back to fight U.S. forces anew.

Another official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the review panel found some evidence to corroborate the man’s story that he played a lowly support role at the Taliban encampment where he was captured. He was held for four months in Afghanistan before being taken to Guantanamo Bay, the official said.

The Defense Department has defined an enemy combatant as a person “who was part of or supporting Taliban or al-Qaida forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. This includes any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported hostilities in aid of enemy armed forces.”

29 others determined to be combatants
The 29 other men whose cases were reviewed by the tribunals, which started last month, were determined to be enemy combatants, England said.

The Defense Department created the tribunals after the Supreme Court ruled in June that Guantanamo prisoners had the right to go into U.S. courts to challenge the legality of their detentions and seek their freedom.

The Defense Department classified the Guantanamo prisoners as enemy combatants rather than prisoners of war, which would have a given them a host of legal rights under international law.

The United States holds about 585 foreign prisoners at the base. Most were caught in Afghanistan in late 2001. Hearings have been held for 25 other prisoners, but no final decisions have been reached on their status, England said.

Under other procedures, 156 other Guantanamo prisoners have been released or sent to their home countries for further detention, the Defense Department said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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