Exclusive: Innocent Men in Legal Limbo Still at Gitmo


Feb. 16, 2006 — -- The government says many of the roughly 490 men currently detained at Guantanamo Bay are dangerous terrorists. But ABC News has exclusive details about five men imprisoned at Guantanamo who even the Pentagon admits don't pose a national security threat.

The United Nations said today the base should be shut down. The organization said that conditions there were so bad they "amount to torture" and that the prisoners there should be tried or let go.

Adel al Hakim and the four other detainees, all of whom are ethnic Uighurs -- Muslims from China's northwestern Xinjiang Province -- have been imprisoned at Guantanamo for more than four years.

"What's clear here is that the military had its own military secret tribunal. There were no lawyers there, I wasn't there," said Sabin Willett, a Boston-based attorney who represents two of the detainees. "They determined at this tribunal that these men were not al Qaeda, they were not Taliban. They were not criminals, they were not enemies. They were a mistake."

In December 2005, federal district court Judge James Robertson said that "nothing ... establishes that the government has or could reasonably have a concern that these petitioners would return to the battlefield if released."

When they were captured on the Fagan-Pakistan border in 2001, the U.S. military branded them enemy combatants, saying they admitted to spending time at a Taliban training camp. When they were finally given a chance to defend themselves last year, a military tribunal determined they posed no threat to the United States.

But there is one big problem with setting them free: The men have no place to go. They cannot go back to China because of the high chance they would face persecution or worse. Al-Hakim's sister, Kavser Hakmajan, told ABC News that if he returned to China "he will be facing unthinkable consequences ... mistreated, abused and maybe killed."

In a written statement today, the U.S. State Department told ABC News: "It is the long-standing policy of the United States not to transfer a person to a country if it is determined that it is more likely than not that the person will be tortured ... we are looking into resettlement ... outside China."

Said Willett: "It might well be worse for them to go back to China, that is true, but that hardly justifies imprisonment."

In December a U.S. federal judge agreed but said he had no power to free the men.

"This indefinite imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay is unlawful." But, he added, "the question in this case is whether the law gives me the power to do what I believe justice requires. The answer, I believe, is no."

In court papers, the government has said the fact that they should not be classified as enemy combatants does not mean they're benign, and that the United States has become aware of people released from Guantanamo Bay who went back to the battlefield.

The judge found no evidence "that the government has or could reasonably have a concern" that they would become a threat. In the same decision, he noted the men are "Chinese nationals who received military training in Afghanistan under the Taliban" and that he doesn't have the power to order them released in the United States -- "something which would have national security and diplomatic implications beyond the competence or authority of the court."

After more than four years in prison cells, the men have been moved to an upgraded part of the prison called Camp Iguana, where they live nine to a hut. They have a recreation room and a view of the Caribbean.

But they're still surrounded by barbed wire, rarely able to communicate with their families, and -- according to lawyers -- given bottled drinking water labeled "Freedom Springs."

U.S. officials hope to soon work out an agreement with another country to grant these prisoners asylum, but they remain behind barbed wire in legal limbo. The government has refused to grant them asylum in the United States.

ABC News' Luis Martinez in Washington, D.C., and Sylvie Rottman in New York contributed to this report.

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