WASHINGTON – Two-and-a-half years after he was captured in Afghanistan (search) and detained by the U.S. military as an "enemy combatant," a prisoner at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been told he will be allowed to go home, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
A three-person military panel determined after reviewing his case that he does not fit the definition of an enemy combatant, Navy Secretary Gordon England (search) told a Pentagon news conference.
England declined to disclose the man's name, nationality or case details. He said the State Department is making arrangements for the man to be returned to his home country within days or weeks.
Of the 30 Guantanamo Bay detainee cases reviewed thus far in a process that began Aug. 13, this is the first one that concluded with a finding that the detainee is not an enemy combatant.
The U.S. government defines an enemy combatant as "an individual who was part of or supporting Taliban or Al Qaeda (search) forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners."
A person classified as an enemy combatant can be held without being charged with a crime and without legal representation until the conflict has ended.
The case of the man determined not to fit the definition of an enemy combatant has been reviewed more than once before, said England, who could not explain what information surfaced during the latest review that led the panel to its decision.
"This is a difficult process when we look at all the data," England said. "Now, as time goes on, fortunately, we do get more data. So there's more data over time, you have a better understanding of the data, and hopefully we can make better decisions."
He said U.S. officials have struggled to overcome the ability of many detainees to disguise their true links to the Taliban or Al Qaeda and their actual role on the Afghan battlefield.
"It's very challenging to sort fact from fiction," England said, adding that some detainees have been released only to reappear on Afghanistan battlefields. He gave no specific examples.
The American Civil Liberties Union welcomed England's announcement but asserted that hundreds of other captives are still in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay.
"It should not take more than two years for the U.S. military to determine that we were holding someone who is apparently not an enemy combatant," said Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU's executive director.
Nearly all the approximately 585 detainees at Guantanamo Bay were captured in Afghanistan after U.S. forces invaded in October 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The first group was transported to Guantanamo Bay in January 2002. Since then, 129 have been freed as a result of various reviews and 27 have been transferred to the custody of their home governments.
The person whose case England announced Wednesday has been moved from behind bars to a "transition facility" at Guantanamo Bay until travel arrangements are completed, England said.
Specifics about his case cannot be released, England said, because "there's a lot of classified information about the person."
Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the review panel found some evidence to corroborate the man's story that he played a lowly support role at the Taliban encampment where he was captured. He was held for four months in Afghanistan before being taken to Guantanamo Bay, the official said.
England said he did not believe the U.S. government would give the man any financial or other compensation.
When pressed, England declined to say that the man had been held by mistake.
"I'm not sure it's that clear cut," he said. "He was determined to be an enemy combatant at different times. We now have more data available. A different group of people came to a different conclusion" about his status.
The final decision was made by Rear Adm. James M. McGarrah after reviewing the work of a three-person military panel. England said the detainee appeared before the panel but did not present any witnesses to testify on his behalf.
By the end of this year, England said, all of the Guantanamo Bay detainees will have their cases reviewed by panels formally known as Combatant Status Review Tribunals.