Saturday, April 29, 2006

U.S. Says It Fears Detainee Abuse in Repatriation

New York Times - A long-running effort by the Bush administration to send home many of the terror suspects held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has been stymied in part because of concern among United States officials that the prisoners may not be treated humanely by their own governments, officials said.

Administration officials have said they hope eventually to transfer or release many of the roughly 490 suspects now held at Guantánamo. As of February, military officials said, the Pentagon was ready to repatriate more than 150 of the detainees once arrangements could be made with their home countries.

But those arrangements have been more difficult to broker than officials in Washington anticipated or have previously acknowledged, raising questions about how quickly the administration can meet its goal of scaling back detention operations at Guantánamo.

"The Pentagon has no plans to release any detainees in the immediate future," said a Defense Department spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon of the Navy. He said the negotiations with foreign governments "have proven to be a complex, time-consuming and difficult process."

The military has so far sent home 267 detainees from Guantánamo after finding that they had no further intelligence value and either posed no long-term security threat or would reliably be imprisoned or monitored by their own governments. Most of those who remain are considered more dangerous militants; many also come from nations with poor human rights records and ineffective justice systems.

But Washington's insistence on humane treatment for the detainees in their native countries comes after years in which Guantánamo has been assailed as a symbol of American abuse and hypocrisy — a fact not lost on the governments with which the United States is now negotiating.

"It is kind of ironic that the U.S. government is placing conditions on other countries that it would not follow itself in Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib," said a Middle Eastern diplomat from one of the countries involved in the talks. He asked not to be named to avoid criticizing the United States in the name of his government.

The push for human rights assurances now, some officials said, also reflects a renewed effort by the State Department to influence the administration's detention policy, even as the United States continues to face wide criticism for sending terror suspects to be interrogated in countries known to practice torture.

Neither the State Department, which is the lead agency in the repatriation talks, nor the Pentagon would comment on them in detail. United States officials who agreed to discuss them would do so only on the condition of anonymity, either because they were not authorized to speak publicly or to avoid disrupting the negotiations.

Those officials said the talks had been particularly difficult with Saudi Arabia and Yemen, two nations that account for almost half of the detainees now at Guantánamo.

The Saudi government was among the first to seek the return of its citizens from Guantánamo, and its discussions with United States officials have proceeded in fits and starts for more than three years.

Five Saudi prisoners were sent home in May 2003 in an arrangement that some officials said could be a template for future transfers.

But several American officials have since acknowledged privately that the repatriation was part of a secret, high-level pact with the Saudi and British governments, in which the Saudi authorities later freed five British citizens and two other men Saudi Arabia had convicted on what British officials said were trumped-up charges of terrorism.

United States officials said they had no indication that any of the five repatriated Saudis were abused after returning home. As discussions have moved forward on the 128 Saudis still at Guantánamo, however, Saudi Arabia's record on human rights has emerged as a central obstacle, several American officials said.

According to a State Department human rights report released in March, the Saudi authorities have used "beatings, whippings and sleep deprivation" on Saudi and foreign prisoners. The report also noted "allegations of beatings with sticks and suspension from bars by handcuffs."

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