U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the United States will review the status of hundreds of people being detained as enemy combatants at a U.S. Naval base in Cuba to determine whether they still pose a terrorist threat. The decision comes amid strong criticism from other governments and human rights groups over the indefinite detention of people captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan.
Secretary Rumsfeld says the more than 600 detainees being held under maximum security and without charge at Guantanamo Bay, some for more than two years, will now be granted an annual review.
"That would ensure that the detainee has an opportunity to provide information to a panel and that the judgments about continued detention will be made on the basis of the most current information," he said.
The goal would be to allow those who believe they do not pose a threat to the United States to make their case. Still, Mr. Rumsfeld suggests some detainees could end up being held indefinitely or face trial before a military tribunal.
"They're not common criminals. They're enemy combatants and terrorists who are being detained for acts of war against our country," he said.
But critics say the legal rights of the detainees are being violated and that the U.S. military should either charge or release them. The U.S. military maintains those rights do not apply because the detainees are not classified as prisoners of war and have been picked up on foreign soil.
Federal Public Defender Frank Dunham represents one enemy combatant, Yaser Hamdi, captured during the war in Afghanistan, who was transferred out of Guantanamo Bay and to Virginia after the U.S. military learned he was born in the United States.
"As soon as it can be determined that you're not a threat to anybody, you ought to be released," he said. "I would think it should be more than an annual review but I applaud it because people can just fall into a black hole and be detained forever if somebody is not constantly reviewing these things."
Friday's announcement by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld may not be the last word on the enemy combatant matter. The Supreme Court is now considering whether American courts have jurisdiction to intervene in the on-going detentions of people being held by the U.S. military without trial.