WASHINGTON - U.S. military officials will gradually hand over 110 Afghan prisoners to Afghanistan's government in the largest repatriation of detainees from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since it was converted to a military prison for terrorism suspects three years ago, the Pentagon said yesterday.
In addition, U.S. authorities plan to turn over 350 Afghans who are in U.S. custody in Afghanistan after prison space is built to accommodate them, officials said.
Under a newly signed agreement between the countries, Afghan authorities then will decide which prisoners to detain and which to release, Pentagon officials said.
The agreement will move the Bush administration a step closer to dealing with the diplomatic problems caused by the Guantanamo prison.
The indefinite detentions of about 510 Guantanamo prisoners are viewed in many parts of the world and by critics in the United States as human rights violations, and administration officials have debated whether to close the prison amid charges that detainees there have been abused.
The agreement to release the Afghans also will help relieve domestic political pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose fragile government has faced demonstrations and popular unrest because of the issue.
Pressure from Karzai
Karzai, a close U.S. ally, pressed President Bush during a visit to the United States in May to release more of the detainees.
Most of the detainees in question were swept up by U.S. forces that invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to fight the Taliban government and its al-Qaida allies. Four detainees held at the base have been charged formally with crimes under a military commission system that has been challenged in U.S. courts.
Pentagon officials portrayed the repatriation as part of a long-term effort to turn over as many detainees as possible to their home countries.
The U.S. military previously returned hundreds of Afghans taken prisoner to the control of their government.
U.S. officials have released or transferred more than 240 Guantanamo detainees to about a dozen countries. The officials have acknowledged that a few of the released Afghans have rejoined the Taliban insurgency.
A senior defense official said yesterday's announcement should not be seen as a sign that the Pentagon is going to return prisoners to their native countries to be quickly released or tortured there.
The official said the prisoners will be transferred to Afghan authorities when the Afghan government proves it is capable of handling a large number of detainees.
In Kabul, the Afghan capital, Karim Rahimi, a spokesman for Karzai, told the Associated Press that the returnees would include "all Afghan detainees that are with the U.S. forces." The 350 prisoners being held in Afghanistan are under U.S. control at Bagram air base, north of Kabul.
New prison space
Under the agreement, U.S. authorities will provide money to build new prison space for the Afghans and will train Afghan personnel to manage the new prisons.
Pentagon officials have said for some time that they wanted to increase the number of repatriations but have been held back by problems.
Some countries, including Afghanistan, haven't had the money or prison space to accommodate prisoners. U.S. authorities were unwilling to repatriate other prisoners because, under the laws of their home countries, the detainees would have been immediately freed.
U.S. authorities were reluctant to repatriate others for fear that in their home countries they might be treated in ways that would be unacceptably harsh by U.S. standards.
Bush administration officials debated as recently as June whether to close the Guantanamo prison. Bush seemed to suggest at one point that closing it was a possibility, but defenders of the current system, including Vice President Dick Cheney, convinced others in the administration that keeping Guantanamo open was their best option.
They argued that the United States would need a substitute facility that would look much like Guantanamo and that the detainees had yielded valuable intelligence.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.