The Pentagon has been trying to gradually reduce the number of prisoners being held at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Scores of terror suspects — held for years without charge — are being repatriated to their home countries, or to other nations willing to take them.
In the early morning hours of July 16, a U.S. military plane touched down in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh. Aboard were 16 men who had just made the journey from Guantanamo. They were taken into Saudi custody, given food and new clothes, and allowed to reunite with their families.
It was among the largest detainee transfers from Guantanamo. Over the past few years, about 420 prisoners have been released — that's more than half the total number incarcerated at Guantanamo since the opening days of the war on terror.
Joanne Mariner, a counter-terrorism expert with Human Rights Watch, said her organization has been tracking what has happened to those detainees who have been released.
"We found that most detainees have basically returned back to obscurity. They haven't been involved in any kind of violent acts, and they've essentially returned to their lives," she said.
From the moment the detainees first started arriving at Guantanamo in January 2002, and for a few years thereafter, the Bush administration portrayed the men as ruthless killers, the worst of the worst, sentiments echoed at the time by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers.
"These are people that would gnaw through hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down. So these are very, very dangerous people," Myers said.
Rumsfeld said Guantanamo contained prisoners "perfectly willing to kill themselves and kill other people."
Critics, however, say that the release of hundreds of detainees undermines the administration's assertion that all Guantanamo prisoners are extremely dangerous. They say it is likely there was not enough evidence to hold them in the first place.
The quality of evidence was also called into question recently by a military officer who sharply criticized the process, known as Combatant Status Review Tribunal, or CSRT, used to decide whether a detainee should be held indefinitely. Reserve Army Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham heard some of the evidence against the detainees.
"In reality, the information upon which CSRT decisions were based were vague, generalized, dated, and of little probative value," he said.
Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a New York-based lawyer who represents several former detainees from Bahrain said the government in that nation released the former prisoners immediately after they were repatriated because of a lack of evidence.
"The government of Bahrain on several occasions said to the U.S. 'please transfer our citizens back to us. If you have any evidence, please send it to us and we will prosecute them,'" Bryan said.
"The fact that our clients have lived freely since their return to Bahrain makes it clear to me that there was never any evidence of any wrongdoing on their part," he said.
The Bush administration often stipulates that the home countries incarcerate the detainees, prosecute them or monitor them once they are sent back. Yet, according to Human Rights Watch and other groups tracking released prisoners, most of the 420 ex-detainees were held very briefly in the home countries, were never tried, and those that were tried were often acquitted.
Joanne Mariner, with Human Rights Watch, said 10 detainees returned to Morocco represent a case in point.
"All of them have gone through some kind of trial proceeding. The majority of them were acquitted, others got relatively minor sentences and were released with time served," she said.
Human rights groups say former Guantanamo detainees from European countries such as Belgium, the UK, Denmark, and Spain are all now free; so too with Egypt, the Maldives, Turkey, Kuwait, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Virtually all of the 70 prisoners repatriated to Pakistan so far have been freed. A similar situation has occurred with Saudi Arabia.
Wells Dixon, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights said there are serious concerns about several detainees who have not been given justice upon their return. He said a Libyan, a Tunisian, and seven Russians released from Guantanamo are facing torture back home.
"Then there are other detainees who have simply disappeared. We know in the case of ... [some] who have been returned to Uzbekistan [and] ... one detainee who was returned to Bangladesh, [that] these men have simply disappeared since they were turned over by the United States to their home governments," Dixon said.
The administration says it seeks assurance that detainees will not be persecuted or harmed if sent back home, but also that it does not track detainees once they have left Guantanamo.
Pentagon spokesman Commander Jeffrey Gorden said a detainee goes through a comprehensive series of reviews before being released and that there is an inherent risk every time was is released.
"In fact, our reports indicate that at least 30 former Guantanamo detainees have taken part in anti-coalition militant activities after leaving U.S. detention," he said. "Some have been killed in combat in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
The Pentagon will only identify seven former detainees it said "returned to the battlefield."
Defense officials said there are plans to release about 150 more Guantanamo prisoners, leaving about 200 remaining at the military camp.