The US government has released the most extensive list yet of the hundreds of detainees who have been held at the Guantanamo Bay prison – nearly all labelled enemy combatants, but only a handful of whom have faced formal charges.
In all, 558 people were named in the list provided by the Pentagon yesterday in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit by The Associated Press. They were among the first swept up in the US global war on terrorism for suspected links to al-Qaida or the Taliban.
The list is the first official roster of Guantanamo detainees who passed through the Combatant Status Review Tribunal process in 2004 and 2005 to determine whether they should be deemed “enemy combatants”.
Those named are from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and 39 other countries. Many have been held at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay for more than four years.
Some names are familiar, such as David Hicks, a Muslim from Australia charged with fighting US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. He is one of 10 detainees selected to be tried by a military tribunal, on charges of attempted murder, aiding the enemy and conspiracy to commit terrorism.
Hicks allegedly fought for the Taliban, and Australian news media have said British authorities contend he admitted undergoing training with British Islamic extremists, including Richard Reid, who was convicted of trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic airliner with a shoe bomb.
Lesser-known detainees on the list include Muhammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi who reportedly was supposed to be the 20th hijacker in the September 11 terror attacks. Although his presence at Guantanamo had been reported, the military had previously declined to confirm it.
US authorities denied al-Qahtani entry at Orlando, Florida, before the suicide hijackings. But testimony in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui quoted an al-Qaida leader as describing al-Qahtani as the last hijacker for the mission who would “complete the group”.
Others on the list, such as an Afghan identified only as “Commander Chaman”, remain mysterious.
In all, the detainees on the list came from 41 countries. The largest number -132 – came from Saudi Arabia. Afghanistan followed with 125, then Yemen with 107.
Lt. Col. Todd Vician, a Pentagon spokesman, said the list had been previously accessible by the International Committee for the Red Cross, but the Department of Defence had determined it was now “prudent” to release the list to the public.
Partial, unofficial lists of Guantanamo Bay detainees have been compiled in the past by news organisations, lawyers and human rights groups. The US government had previously declined to release any list of names except the 10 who have been formally charged.
Even with the latest release, the Pentagon has not provided a full list of all the more than 750 prisoners that the military says have passed through Guantanamo. Vician said he had no information on the roughly 200 people whose names did not appear on yesterday’s list.
The release of the list, ordered by a federal judge, came amid wide criticism of the almost total secrecy surrounding the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, where the United States now holds about 490 detainees.
“This is information that should have been released a long time ago, and it’s a scandal that it hasn’t been,” said Bill Goodman, legal director of the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights, which has helped co-ordinate legal efforts on behalf of Guantanamo detainees.
The combatant status hearings at Guantanamo Bay were held from July 2004 to January 2005.
All detainees at the prison during that period had such a hearing. Of the 558 detainees who received one, the panels classified 38 as “no longer enemy combatants” and the military later released 29 of them from Guantanamo.
The remaining nine, including an undisclosed number of Uighurs who can’t be sent back to their native China because of the possibility they could face persecution, are being held in a part of the detention centre with extra privileges known as Camp Iguana, a military spokesman said.
The names of many Guantanamo Bay detainees were disclosed publicly for the first time on March 3, when the Pentagon released some 5,000 pages of transcripts.
More names came in subsequent releases of documents – but always buried within the text of transcripts that often contained only partial information about the detainees.
With the list released yesterday, which was accompanied by some 500 more pages of transcripts that the Pentagon said it inadvertently omitted from earlier releases, the Pentagon went further than ever in identifying who has been held at the high-security detention centre on a US Navy base at the south-eastern edge of Cuba.