Pentagon affirms four as ‘enemy combatants’

/ Source: The Associated Press

A military review of the cases against four terrorism suspects held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has concluded they are classified properly as enemy combatants and will not be freed, the official overseeing the process said Friday.

The four were the first cases, of 21 reviewed thus far, to be decided. There is no appeal.

In a change of policy, the Pentagon stopped on Friday the release of detainees’ nationalities when their cases are heard. Nationalities, but not names, of the first 21 were released at their hearings, including five Thursday.

Lt. Cmdr. Beci Brenton, a spokeswoman for the review process, said the decision to stop providing nationalities was made after some countries objected to the release of that information.

Nationalities of those whose cases have been heard and decided — starting with the four announced on Friday — will be released afterward only if their home governments do not object, Brenton said.

Four additional cases were being heard Friday at Guantanamo Bay, raising the total to 25; their outcome was not expected to be known immediately.

Dispute over distinctions between combatants, POWs
The Pentagon has insisted since it began holding individuals captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the war on terror nearly three years ago that they are enemy combatants, not prisoners of war, and thus can be held indefinitely without being charged with a crime or allowed access to lawyers.

Human rights organizations have challenged the Pentagon on this, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced this year that each person held at Guantanamo Bay would have his case reviewed once a year to determine if he was a security threat to the United States.

When the Supreme Court ruled June 28 that the detainees have a right to challenge their imprisonment in federal court, the Pentagon quickly organized a separate, narrower review process to determine whether each detainee is an enemy combatant as defined by the Pentagon.

Navy Secretary Gordon England, who is overseeing the reviews but has no say in the outcome of individual cases, said an enemy combatant is “anyone who is part of supporting the Taliban or al-Qaida forces or associated forces engaging in hostilities against the United States or our coalition partners.”

The reviews began July 30.

‘There to help people’
In one of five hearings held Thursday at Guantanamo Bay, a Kuwaiti who has been held for more than two years told a review panel that he worked for an Islamic charity in Afghanistan and that he had no connection to terrorist organizations or to one of Osama bin Laden’s alleged associates. The military says the al-Wafa charity helped finance bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network, and the Kuwaiti knew beforehand of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

“This wasn’t a terrorist organization. It was there to help people,” the Kuwaiti said through an Arabic interpreter. He said the charity finances humanitarian projects like clinics.

Barring an unforeseen delay, all 585 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay will have their cases heard before the end of the year, England said. He said the hearings are taking longer than originally expected, mainly because of language barriers, but extra translators are being hired to speed it up.

The detainees are not represented by lawyers.

England said that of the 21 detainees whose cases have been heard so far, 11 chose not to appear before the three-person panel of military officers who reviewed the case details. Still, he said, there was no indication of an organized boycott.

Of the four detainees whose cases were completed, two appeared before the review panel and two did not, said Lt. Cmdr. Beci Brenton, a spokeswoman for England.

The hearings are the first opportunity that detainees have had to plead their cases since the Guantanamo Bay prison camp was opened in January 2002 to hold people captured in the war against terror. Human rights lawyers criticize the hearings as a sham, contending the detainees are not allowed lawyers and the officers hearing cases cannot be considered impartial. The Pentagon calls the officers neutral because they have had no involvement with the suspects.

The reviews are separate from a more elaborate military tribunal, which the Pentagon calls a military commission. Established by President Bush in 2002, the tribunal system is designed to conduct trials of non-American terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. No such trials have been held yet, although the U.S. government has designated 15 people at Guantanamo Bay as eligible for trial.