The Pentagon called them "among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth," sweeping them up after Sept. 11 and hauling them in chains to a U.S. military prison in southeastern Cuba.
Since then, hundreds of the men have been transferred from Guantanamo Bay to other countries, many of them for "continued detention."
And then set free.
Decisions by more than a dozen countries in the Middle East, Europe and South Asia to release the former detainees raise questions about whether they were really as dangerous as the United States claimed, or whether some of America's staunchest allies have set terrorists and militants free.
The United States does not systematically track what happens to detainees once they leave Guantanamo, the U.S. State Department says. Defense lawyers and human rights groups say they know of no centralized database, although one group is attempting to compile one.
When the Pentagon announces a detainee has been moved from Guantanamo, it gives his nationality but not his name, making it difficult to track the roughly 360 men released since the detention center opened in January 2002. The Pentagon says detainees have been sent to 26 countries.
Four-fifths freed after transfer
But through interviews with justice and police officials, detainees and their families, and using reports from human rights groups and local media, The Associated Press was able to track 245 of those formerly held at Guantanamo. The investigation, which spanned 17 countries, found:
- Once the detainees arrived in other countries, 205 of the 245 were either freed without being charged or were cleared of charges related to their detention at Guantanamo. Forty either stand charged with crimes or continue to be detained.
- Only a tiny fraction of transferred detainees have been put on trial. The AP identified 14 trials, in which eight men were acquitted and six are awaiting verdicts. Two of the cases involving acquittals — one in Kuwait, one in Spain — initially resulted in convictions that were overturned on appeal.
- The Afghan government has freed every one of the more than 83 Afghans sent home. Lawmaker Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, the head of Afghanistan's reconciliation commission, said many were innocent and wound up at Guantanamo because of tribal or personal rivalries.
- At least 67 of 70 repatriated Pakistanis are free after spending a year in Adiala Jail. A senior Pakistani Interior Ministry official said investigators determined that most had been "sold" for bounties to U.S. forces by Afghan warlords who invented links between the men and al-Qaida. "We consider them innocent," said the official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
- All 29 detainees who were repatriated to Britain, Spain, Germany, Russia, Australia, Turkey, Denmark, Bahrain and the Maldives were freed, some within hours after being sent home for "continued detention."
Some former detainees say they never intended to harm the United States and are bitter.
"I can't wash the three long years of pain, trouble and humiliation from my memory," said Badarzaman Badar, an Afghan who was freed in Pakistan. "It is like a cancer in my mind that makes me disturbed every time I think of those terrible days."
Overall, about 165 Guantanamo detainees have been transferred from Guantanamo for "continued detention," while about 200 were designated for immediate release. Some 420 detainees remain at the U.S. base in Cuba.
‘A politically motivated farce’
Clive Stafford Smith, a British-American attorney representing several detainees, said the AP's findings indicate that innocent men were jailed and that the term "continued detention" is part of "a politically motivated farce."
"The Bush administration wants to be able to say that these are dangerous terrorists who are going to be confined upon their release ... although there is no evidence against many of them," he said.
When four Britons were sent home from Guantanamo in January 2005, Britain said it would detain and investigate them — then released them after only 18 hours. Five Britons repatriated earlier were also rapidly released with no charges.
Murat Kurnaz, a German-born Turkish citizen, was also quickly freed when he was flown to Germany in August, bound hand and foot, after more than four years at Guantanamo.
U.S. officials maintained he was a member of al-Qaida, based on what they said was secret evidence. But his New Jersey-based lawyer, Baher Azmy, said he was shown the classified evidence and was shocked to find how unpersuasive it was.
"It contains five or six statements exonerating him," Azmy said.
In October German prosecutors said they found no evidence that Kurnaz had links to Islamic radicals in Pakistan or Afghanistan and formally dropped their investigation.
U.S.: Freedom doesn't equate to innocence
The United States insists that the fact that so many of the former detainees have been freed by other countries doesn't mean they weren't dangerous.
"They were part of Taliban, al-Qaida, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.
But Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a lawyer representing several detainees, says the fact that hundreds of men have been released into freedom belies their characterization by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as "among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth."
"After all, it would simply be incredible to suggest that the United States has voluntarily released such 'vicious killers' or that such men had been miraculously reformed at Guantanamo," Colangelo-Bryan said.
Mohammed Aman, a 49-year-old Afghan who describes himself as a former low-level member of the Taliban, said he initially wasn't worried when U.S. troops detained him.
"I was relaxed because I was innocent," he said. "I was sure I would be freed. I was always thinking that today or tomorrow I will be free."
He spent three years at Guantanamo until he was finally put on a plane at the base, blindfolded and with headphones covering his ears. When he made it back to his home in Malaik Khail, Afghanistan, villagers streamed out to greet him, many weeping.
Detainees are held at Guantanamo Bay because a military panel classifies them as an "enemy combatant," which refers not only to armed fighters but to anyone who aids enemy forces. Every year, each gets a hearing to determine whether he remains a security threat to the United States or has intelligence value.
Deputy secretary of defense decides
Using those hearings as guidance, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England decides whether to keep the detainee at Guantanamo, release him, or send him to another country for detention.
This year, through Nov. 20, he had ruled on 149 prisoners. He decided that 106 should be held, 43 should be transferred to custody of other countries and none should be released outright.
Azmy, the New Jersey lawyer, said the distinction between release and transfer is largely a fiction because recipient countries are under no obligation to imprison the returnees. The United States doesn't even ask them to.
A senior U.S. State Department official acknowledged that "We do not ask countries to detain them on our behalf, so when a decision is made by a country to move forward with an investigation for prosecution, that is something they have decided to do pursuant to their own domestic law."
Requesting anonymity because she is not authorized to speak on the record, she said about 15 former detainees returned to the battlefield after being freed. The Pentagon was unable to provide details.
"That's the risk that goes along with transferring people out of Guantanamo," she said. "It's not foolproof."
Some former detainees still face the justice systems of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and France.
Six Kuwaitis released
Six Kuwaitis returned from Guantanamo stood trial on terror-related charges. Five were acquitted, and on Dec. 5 an appeals court overturned the conviction of the sixth, Nasser al-Mutairi.
In France, the trial of six transferred Guantanamo detainees has focused as much on the U.S. prison camp as on their prosecution on charges of "criminal association with a terrorist enterprise."
Prosecutor Sonya Djemni-Wagner has requested light sentences, saying she took into account the defendants' "arbitrary detention ... at a facility outside all legal frameworks."
She is seeking one year in prison plus suspended sentences for five suspects and no sentence for the sixth, all of whom are currently free.
Their time already served behind bars in France should be counted toward their sentences, she said, meaning that even if convicted, none would be locked up.