The U.S. military tribunals set up to determine whether suspected al-Qaida and Taleban fighters held at a military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba are indeed enemy combatants has completed its review of all detainees. The tribunals found that most, though not all, of the detainees should still be classified as enemy combatants. And 33 of the remaining non-enemy combatants will be released soon.
Navy Secretary Gordon England, the Pentagon official overseeing the combatant status review tribunals (CSRTs), said Tuesday that all 558 men in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay have had their cases heard before the three-member tribunals.
"Of the five 558 CSRT hearings conducted, the enemy combatant status of 520 was confirmed,” he said. “The tribunals also concluded that 38 detainees were found to no longer meet the criteria to be designated as enemy combatants."
Mr. England said that as of March 29, five of those 38 persons have returned to their home countries and that the U.S. State Department is working to coordinate the return of the remaining 33 as quickly as possible.
Most of the detainees were captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan and are suspected of supporting al-Qaida or the Taleban. The Bush Administration has refused to call them prisoners of war, as this would afford them certain rights under the Geneva Convention, which the United States has signed.
Instead, the men have been referred to as enemy combatants. Mr. England says their detention is legally justified because of the threat they still pose.
"The basis of detaining captured enemy combatants is not to punish, but rather to prevent them from continuing to fight against the United States and its coalition partners in the ongoing global war on terrorism,” he added. “Detention of captured enemy combatants is both allowed and accepted under international law of armed conflict."
The tribunals have been accused of relying on non-credible witnesses or one-source of information to uphold a detainee's enemy combatant status. Mr. England said the three-member tribunals only review information they consider reliable and that they look at the totality of that information. But he acknowledged that the judges are human and no system was perfect.
"At the end of the day there is a judgment,” he noted. “In this case we have three people. We have three members of the tribunal and they make the very best decision they can based on the data available. Is the system perfect? It's [made up of] human beings so obviously it's not perfect, but it is as perfect as we can make this system and as fair as we can make this system for the detainee, while protecting America. Keep in mind that we do have obligation to protect America from terrorists."
Secretary England stopped short of saying that mistakes had been made in holding the 38 non-enemy combatants, arguing that the evidence which cleared them may not have been available when they were captured.