MIAMI – The U.S. and Afghan governments announced an agreement Thursday that could significantly shrink the prison population at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by transferring up to 110 Afghans back to a lockup in their homeland.
The United States said it would help the Afghans build prisons and train guards as part of the deal for “the gradual transfer of many Afghan detainees to the exclusive custody and control of the Afghan government.”
Of the 500 or so captives at the prison camp in Cuba, about 110 are Afghan citizens, the Pentagon disclosed Thursday.
The State Department said the agreement came out of a meeting between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Bush in May – a period of intense criticism of U.S. detention policy.
“At first glance, it appears to be transfer from one legal black hole, in Guantanamo, into another legal black hole, in Afghanistan,” said Philadelphia attorney Peter Ryan, whose firm Dechert LLP is providing pro bono representation for nine Afghans.
One is Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, in his mid-30s, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan – and among the best-known captives at Guantanamo Bay.
Other Afghans detained there who have filed suit against the Bush administration include people like self-described shepherd Sharbat Khan and blacksmith Alif Mohammed, a father of 10.
Afghan captives in Cuba range in age from their 20s to 70s and mostly argue in federal lawsuits that they were mistakenly swept up by U.S. troops in the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Many are illiterate.
Additionally, the United States has about 350 other Afghan prisoners at Bagram air base, located north of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, who also could be transferred to Karzai’s government under the deal.
A State Department announcement said Karzai’s government “has agreed to accept responsibility for the returning Afghan citizens and will work to ensure that they do not pose a continuing threat to Afghanistan, the coalition or the international community as a whole.”
The United States is holding captives from at least two dozen nations at Guantanamo, mostly captured in south Asia as suspected Taliban and al-Qaida members. They include Pakistanis, Persian Gulf and north African Arabs, Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans and Jordanians as well as Muslims from China, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia and Tajikistan.
Ryan said it was too early to tell whether his firm’s clients would be among those transferred.
But, if they are, the lawyers might still argue a federal court can review their captivity even in Afghanistan because of the joint nature of the U.S.-Afghan coalition there, under Karzai.
“If they get the process we believe they are due in front of a federal judge, you can determine whether or not these people belong in custody and whether or not they need to be charged with something – or released,” Ryan said, reflecting criticism by lawyers for the detainees of the Pentagon’s enemy-combatant review panels.