STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now one matter in the Bush administration is struggling to handle is the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In the past few years, the Pentagon has been trying to reduce the number of prisoners it's holding there. Scores of terror suspects, held for years without charge, are being repatriated to their home countries or to third nations willing to take them.
NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports on what happens to many of those detainees once they're released.
JACKIE NORTHAM: In the early morning hours of July 16th, a U.S. military plane touched down in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. Onboard were 16 men who had just made the journey from Guantanamo. The men were taken into Saudi custody. They were given food and new clothes, and were allowed to reunite with their families.
This 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 who have been incarcerated at Guantanamo.
Joanne Mariner, a counter-terrorism expert with Human Rights Watch, says her organization has been tracking what's happened to those detainees who've been released.
Ms. JOANNE MARINER (Director, Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Program, Human Rights Watch): We found that most detainees have basically returned back to obscurity. You don't hear from them. They haven't been involved in any kind of violent acts and, you know, they've essentially returned to their lives.
NORTHAM: 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 here by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers.
General RICHARD MYERS (Former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): These are people that would gnaw through hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down. I mean, so these are very, very dangerous people.
Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Former Secretary of Defense): There are, among these prisoners, people who are perfectly willing to kill themselves and kill other people.
NORTHAM: But critics say that the release of hundreds of detainees undermines the administration's assertion that all Guantanamo prisoners are extremely dangerous. And, the critics say, it's likely there was never 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 used to decide whether a detainee should be held indefinitely, a process known as CSRT. Reserve Army Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Abraham heard some of the evidence against the detainees.
Lieutenant Colonel STEPHEN ABRAHAM (U.S. Army): In reality, the information upon which CSRT decisions were based were vague, generalized, dated and of little probative value.
NORTHAM: Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a New York lawyer who represents several former detainees from Bahrain, says the government there released them immediately after they returned home because of a lack of evidence.
Mr. JOSHUA COLANGELO-BRYAN (Associate, Dorsey & Whitney LLP): The government of Bahrain on several occasions said to the U.S., please transfer our citizens back to us. If you have any evidence against them, send that to us and we will prosecute them. The fact that our clients lived freely since their return to Bahrain makes clear to me that there was never any evidence of any wrongdoing on their part.
NORTHAM: The Bush administration often stipulates that the home countries incarcerate the detainees once they're sent back, prosecute them or monitor them. Yet, according to Human Rights Watch and other groups tracking released prisoners, most of the 424 former detainees were held very briefly in their home countries. Most were never tried, and those who were, were often acquitted.
Joan Mariner with Human Rights Watch says 10 detainees who were returned to Morocco is a case in point.
Ms. MARINER: All of them have gone through some sort kind of prosecution, some kind of trial proceeding. The majority of them were acquitted. A few others got relatively minor sentences and were released for time served. The end result is that detainees were released.
NORTHAM: Human rights groups say former Guantanamo detainees from European countries such as Belgium, the U.K., Denmark, and Spain are all free; so, too, with Egypt, the Maldives, Turkey, Kuwait, Yemen and Afghanistan. Virtually all the 70 prisoners repatriated to Pakistan so far have been freed; a similar situation with Saudi Arabia.
Wells Dixon, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, says there are serious concerns about several detainees who have not been given justice upon their return. Dixon says a Libyan, a Tunisian and seven Russians who were released are facing torture back home.
Mr. WELLS DIXSON (Attorney, Guantanamo Global Justice Initiative, Center for the Constitutional Rights): Then there are other detainees who have simply disappear. We know in the case of detainees who've been returned to Uzbekistan, 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.
NORTHAM: The administration says it seeks assurance that detainees will not be persecuted or harmed if sent home, but also says that it does not track detainees once they've left Guantanamo. Defense officials say a detainee goes through a comprehensive series of reviews before being released. Pentagon spokesman Commander Jeffrey Gordon says there's an inherent risk every time a detainee is released.
Commander JEFFREY GORDON (Pentagon Spokesman): In fact, our reports indicate that at least 30 former Guantanamo detainees have taken part in (unintelligible) coalitions and militant activities after leaving U.S. detention. Some have been killed in combat in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
NORTHAM: The Pentagon will only identify seven former detainees it says, quote, "returned to the battlefield." Defense officials say there are plans to release about 150 more Guantanamo prisoners. That would leave just over 200 detainees at the military camp.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
STEVE INSKEEP: It's Morning Edition from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.