A U.S. military panel has for only the second time reversed a Guantanamo prisoner’s “enemy combatant” designation by the Pentagon, and the man will be released, Navy Secretary Gordon England said Monday.
England declined to say the decision meant the Pentagon had erred in deeming the man an “enemy combatant,” the classification under which non-U.S. citizens are held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The designation does not guarantee rights normally accorded to prisoners of war, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this year led to the creation of panels to review the status of hundreds of foreign terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo.
“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to this,” England, who oversees the panels, told a news briefing when asked whether the Pentagon was admitting error.
“I think this is a gray area. You know, as in a lot of cases, there’s a white and black and a big gray area in the middle. And that’s the area we deal with a lot of these cases.”
He did not say when the panel had made its decision but said it was affirmed by the Pentagon “a day or two ago.”
England did not identify the man even by nationality. The Pentagon did not provide information on when or where he was captured, when he was sent to Guantanamo or why his status was reversed. The State Department will notify the home country of the decision and arrange for his release, England said.
The United States currently holds at Guantanamo about 550 non-U.S. citizens captured in what President Bush calls a global war on terrorism, most picked up in Afghanistan.
'Legal black hole'
Human rights groups have criticized the Guantanamo prison as a “legal black hole,” and some former prisoners have said they were tortured there.
After the Supreme Court ruled in June that Guantanamo prisoners could go to U.S. courts to seek their freedom, the Pentagon created military panels to review whether Guantanamo prisoners were being properly held as “enemy combatants.”
These panels are separate from the military tribunals before which a small number of Guantanamo prisoners are facing criminal charges.
In September, the Pentagon said a Pakistani prisoner was sent back to his home country after a review panel found that he, too, was not an enemy combatant.
Military panels have held hearings on the status of 507 Guantanamo prisoners, England said. Decisions have been made for 230 prisoners, with military panels agreeing in 228 cases that they were properly held as enemy combatants.
England said 215 prisoners have refused to appear at the hearings. The Pentagon said the man now deemed not to be an enemy combatant had appeared at his hearing.
“I will tell you these are judgmental calls. I mean, a different board could come out with a different answer, just like different judges or different juries can come out with different answers,” England said.
Bush answers criticism
Roughly 200 other prisoners have been released from Guantanamo through other processes, such as diplomatic talks, separate from the status-review panels. Most were freed to their home countries but some were sent home for further detention, the Pentagon said.
At a press briefing Monday, Bush defended the U.S. handling of Guantanamo prisoners against concerns that it was abusive and too slow. “We’re reviewing the status of the people in Guantanamo on a regular basis,” he told a news conference.
“But you’ve got to understand the dilemma we’re in; these are people that got scooped up off a battlefield, attempting to kill U.S. troops. I want to make sure before they’re released that they don’t come back to kill again,” he said.