Guantanamo prisoners 'wrongly held'

By Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

Published: June 19 2004 5:00 | Last Updated: June 19 2004 5:00

The US released more than two dozen prisoners from Guantanamo Bay earlier this year after Pentagon lawyers determined that some had been detained wrongly for as long as two years.

The imprisonment of suspected "enemy combatants" in the war on terror and their legal status in Cuba will be decided in a long-awaited ruling by the US Supreme Court, expected as early as next week.

But the Financial Times has learned that in January, the Pentagon sent a team of lawyers to Guantanamo to examine whether there was sufficient evidence to justify some of the detentions.

The move was prompted by the desire of Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary, to expedite the review of prisoners, Larry Di Rita, Pentagon spokesman, said. He conceded that some administration lawyers had raised concerns that military officers incorrectly classified the prisoners.

The Pentagon team's recommendation that, in several cases, there was insufficient evidence to justify their imprisonment, alarmed the White House, because of the need to persuade the Supreme Court of the legality of the detentions.

The Bush administration has argued before the Supreme court that the prisoners should have no rights to petition for their release and that their cases are being properly reviewed to ensure that innocent people do not remain in custody.

While most of the prisoners were returned to their home countries, four remain held in a US-run prison at Baghram in Afghanistan because the US has no diplomatic relations with their countries. Mr Di Rita said some countries had been unwilling to accept their citizens who have been released from Guantanamo.

After the lawyers returned from Guantanamo, the Pentagon informed the National Security Council and the office of Theodore Olson, solicitor-general, who was later to argue the administration's position before the Supreme Court. Mr Olson went to Guantanamo in March. A White House spokesman confirmed that Alberto Gonzalez, White House counsel, also visited the detention facility.

Mr Di Rita said the visits by Mr Olson and Mr Gonzalez had no bearing on the decision to release the detainees. A Justice department official said: "Olson did go to Guantanamo Bay a few months ago. It was simply for the purpose of seeing the facility first hand in preparation for the oral argument [at the Supreme Court]."

Human rights groups say they had suspected that the Bush administration released some prisoners before the Supreme Court case in an attempt to demonstrate that the government was properly reviewing the status of the prisoners.

"These are ambiguous situations," said Mr Di Rita. "We have no desire to hold anybody that we shouldn't be holding any longer. Our procedures for evaluation and determining disposition have improved over time."

He added that the US Southern Command, which controls Guantanamo, believed these prisoners had been properly classified as "enemy combatants" when they were sent to Guantanamo, but he conceded that some administration lawyers had not agreed with this conclusion.

The Pentagon announced the release of the first group - 23 Afghans and three Pakistanis - on March 15.

At the time, the Pentagon said: "We make a determination about the detention and release of a detainee based on the best information and evidence we have at the time.