'Worst of the worst'?

A Register-Guard Editorial
Published: Thursday, April 27, 2006
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The Pentagon's announcement that it will release nearly a third of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is intended to placate critics of the U.S. military prison where detainees have been held in legal limbo for four years, tortured and denied any semblance of due process.

But the release does just the opposite. It's a chilling reminder that many detainees at Gitmo are innocents who were wrongly swept up in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Many were not, as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has insisted, "the worst of the worst."

The release also highlights the plight of those who will remain at Gitmo. Of those estimated 330 "enemy combatants," only a handful have been charged with war crimes in military courts, where the rule of law is a distant echo. Not one has been charged with a capital offense.

Pentagon officials say a review of the detainees to be released determined that they no longer threaten the United States' security. Yet they insist the detentions were justified because the men did pose a threat when they were arrested.

That is highly doubtful. Last month's release of transcripts of several hundred Guantanamo hearings on detainees' status revealed that most were turned over by Afghan warlords in exchange for hefty bounties. Less than half were captured on battlefields in Afghanistan, and only a few were accused of actually having fought against American forces.

An example, reported recently by The New York Times, is the case of Abdur Sayed Rahman, who was captured in his Pakistani village, accused of being the Taliban's deputy foreign minister and shipped to Guantanamo. "I am only a chicken farmer in Pakistan," he said at his hearing. Turns out the name of the Taliban official he was accused of being was Abdur Zahid Rahman.

Another prisoner apparently was arrested because he wore an inexpensive brand of watch that was popular among the Taliban. During his hearing, he reasonably inquired why U.S. troops hadn't arrested every Afghan male who had a Casio on his wrist.

Some detainees apparently made confessions of dubious value after repeated and rough interrogations. The National Journal reported that a Yemeni prisoner eventually confessed to seeing Osama bin Laden five times - "three times on al-Jazeera and twice on Yemeni news." An official notation on his case file read: "Detainee admitted to knowing Osama bin Laden."

Then there are the cases of two Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs from western China. U.S. authorities have conceded that they weren't terrorists but part of an Uighur separatist group that had been training in Afghanistan to return to their homeland and oppose Chinese domination.

What's becoming embarrassingly clear is that many of the real bad guys, including bin Laden and his top lieutenants, slipped away, while the United States carted off minor leaguers and innocents to Cuba.

That doesn't mean that none of the people at Guantanamo are dangerous. Some almost certainly are al-Qaeda terrorists and extremists capable of joining al-Qaeda's ranks, especially after four years of mistreatment at Guantanamo.

The Pentagon's latest release of detainees is far from reassuring, and underscores the need for every remaining prisoner to either be charged and tried in a legitimate court of law - or set free. When that's done, the United States should close Guantanamo and start the long process of rebuilding its reputation as a champion of human rights.