(Associated Press file)
The United States has cut the population of the Guantanamo Bay detention center to nearly half its peak in 2003 but is struggling to empty it further.
Faced with rising international pressure to close the military prison in Cuba, the United States has identified dozens of detainees who can be released or transferred to other countries. However, that was only the first step in a process so difficult it has slowed releases to a trickle.
Before it puts detainees on a plane, the United States must find a country to accept them. It also must obtain assurances the prisoners will be prevented from attacking the United States or its allies, and will not be tortured or face other treatment that violates international law.
Britain's new Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked Tuesday for the transfer of five British residents held at Guantanamo -- a change in policy that was welcomed by the Bush administration. Under his predecessor, Tony Blair, the British government would not accept the detainees because they are not citizens.
A senior U.S. defense official warned that officials will have to discuss appropriate security measures before the five sought by Britain can be transferred.
"These are extremely dangerous individuals and if they are sent back to the United Kingdom they could pose a risk if they are out on the street," said Sandra Hodgkinson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs.
However, for nearly all of the 80 Guantanamo detainees now cleared for release, the United States has either not been able to get the necessary assurances or their native countries refused to accept them, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday.
The United States has assurances and permission for only five, but their attorneys have filed legal petitions seeking to block their return, fearing they will be tortured when they return to their home countries.
"Repatriation has been extraordinarily challenging," Gordon said.
It is a challenge that will not end soon.
The United States holds about 360 men at Guantanamo on suspicion of terrorism or links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. Of that group, military officials say they expect to identify about another 70 who can be transferred or released. But they are likely to face the same hurdles.
The United States says it cannot release the rest: About 80 are expected to be tried for war crimes before military tribunals. Some 130 others are considered Islamic extremists who are too dangerous to release. However, there are no plans to prosecute them.
Because of the diplomatic challenges in transferring detainees, some men have been cleared to leave Guantanamo for more than a year but remain in limbo.
"The U.S. has created a mess, and it's very hard to get out of this mess," said Jennifer Daskal, a Washington-based lawyer for Human Rights Watch, which believes there are at least 50 detainees who have expressed fears of being sent back to their home countries.
Once the Defense Department clears a detainee for release, it is up to the State Department to negotiate his transfer and obtain the assurances he will not be mistreated.
The United States has not been able to get sufficient assurances from China in the cases of ethnic Uighurs -- members of a Muslim minority who want an independent homeland -- and ended up sending five of them to Albania. There are 17 left at Guantanamo.
Barbara Olshansky, a Stanford University law professor who has represented Guantanamo detainees, said she believes more Western European countries and others with good human rights records would take detainees, but balk at the U.S. demand for guarantees that they be prevented from carrying out attacks on America and its allies.
"Who the United States is approaching and what they are asking is making it difficult to find places," Olshansky said.
Gordon said the U.S. has worked hard to find third countries, noting that 90 countries were approached to accept Uighurs.
Since 2002, about 420 Guantanamo detainees have been sent to more than two dozen countries. Most were subsequently released, Joseph Benkert, a senior Defense Department official, said in a June affidavit filed in a federal court in Washington.
U.S. officials have alleged that more than a dozen have resumed fighting against the U.S. and human rights groups have cited several cases in which detainees have been abused. The State Department says it investigates such reports.
Human Rights Watch and other rights groups do not trust the assurances that the State Department gets from countries that have a history of torture. They have called on the government to give detainees advance notice when they will be transferred and allow judges to review the cases of those who fear returning home.
In a June affidavit, Clint Williamson, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, opposed such a judicial review, saying it would "add delays to what is already a lengthy process."