AMERICA has failed to compile evidence identifying any of the 500 prisoners it is holding from the Afghanistan war as suitable candidates for a military tribunal, the Pentagon conceded yesterday.
The admission is a major setback for the United States, which claimed that it had detained senior members of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network and the Taleban regime.
Despite holding the prisoners for weeks, and in some cases months, interrogators lack enough details to build a case against them that could be put before a specially-convened hearing, the officials said.
The Pentagon has consistently refused to identify any of the prisoners it is detaining amid suspicions that it holds few, if any, high-ranking al-Qaeda figures. But a Pentagon spokesman denied yesterday that the lack of progress on building cases against the prisoners was a sign that they were holding only footsoldiers.
Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, described the prisoners last month as “very hard cases” who had “demonstrated their determination to kill themselves, kill others, and/or escape”.
But yesterday, addressing the prospect of putting any of them before military tribunals, Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said: “There’s not a sense that we’ve got a person or two people that we feel are really likely candidates.”
President Bush has drawn storms of international protest over the detention of al-Qaeda and Taleban suspects at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and has caused anger among civil rights groups with his plans to set up military tribunals.
Although the tribunal guidelines have yet to be finalised, the US authorities would have to show that the accused was, or had been, a member of al-Qaeda; that they had aided or conspired to commit acts of international terrorism which harmed the US or its citizens; or that they had harboured anyone who had.
The admission about the detainees came as Mr Rumsfeld was accused of speaking out of turn by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary. Mr Blunkett said that it was “inappropriate” for the US Defence Secretary to state that the five Britons held at Camp X-Ray might be allowed home, but only on the condition that they be prosecuted.
Mr Blunkett said that Mr Rumsfeld was “not the Attorney-General in the United States and therefore he’s probably not aware that we have a Crown Prosecution Service.
“Before anyone is detained and before they’re charged, the Crown Prosecution Service has to examine the evidence that’s been presented against them and that is what we will do.”
The Pentagon’s disclosure is also certain to fuel the concerns of civil rights advocates who have already criticised Washington for holding the inmates without charge. Lawyers for one of the five Britons held in Cuba are due in the High Court today to protest that he has been barred from seeing a lawyer.
However, Pentagon officials said that they were “in no hurry” to bring charges against any of the prisoners, 300 in Camp X-Ray and 194 in Afghanistan.
The military tribunals were conceived to deliver swift justice to al-Qaeda leaders. One of the reasons for building Camp X-Ray was that it lies outside American federal jurisdiction.
Despite there being no prosecution case in sight, Mr Rumsfeld refused to rule out some in the future. He said the initial questioning by FBI, CIA and other US interrogators had been designed to elicit intelligence to prevent further attacks. A second round of questioning was now under way with possible prosecutions in mind, he said, adding that it was too early to tell if any of the prisoners would be proposed for trial by military tribunal. “It might well be,” he said. He said other options included bringing criminal charges in US federal courts, sending them home to face charges, releasing them or keeping them indefinitely in Camp X-Ray.
Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.