After they were returned Friday to their home countries, the U.S. military Sunday brought some 20 new suspects to the facility from an undisclosed location, officials said. The Sunday transfer means the prison on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba still holds some 660 people suspected of taking part in terrorist activity — many believed al Qaeda and Taliban figures captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan two years ago at the start of the global war on terrorism.
Senior officials at the Defense Department, in consultation with other U.S. government officials, determined that the 20 freed "either no longer posed a threat to U.S. security or no longer required detention," said a Pentagon statement Monday.
Officials have said for a year that they have been culling through the prisoners to determine final status — that is which can be freed, which tried and which held for continued imprisonment.
So far 88 people have been transferred out of Guantanamo — 84 to be released in their countries and four transferred into Saudi Arabian prisons for continued detention.
In keeping with their secretive policy regarding the prisoners, officials Monday did not identify those released Friday, nor their countries. But it already had become known over the weekend that five were Pakistani prisoners who arrived home Saturday.
The men were captured in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led campaign to oust the Taliban in late 2001, and were later shifted to Guantanamo Bay to investigate their suspected links to al Qaeda, an Interior Ministry official told reporters.
The official said the men will remain in Pakistani custody for a few days before being allowed to go free.
"We believe that they had no links with any militant groups, but we want to satisfy ourselves before allowing them to go to their homes," said the official, who spoke in Pakistan on condition of anonymity.
Since the Guantanamo prison opened in January, 2002, prisoners from 42 countries have been taken there for interrogation and detention. U.S. officials said their priority was to get intelligence to help avoid future terrorist attacks and keep dangerous people out of circulation.
The State Department has been holding talks with an unknown number of those countries, helping work out agreements under which, for instance, the Saudis are keeping four imprisoned in their country.
Officials in July said they had identified six prisoners who might go before military tribunals. But the process stalled after the British government sought negotiations to change some trial rules considered by critics in the international community to be unfair and below acceptable standards of justice.
Pierre-Richard Prosper, the U.S ambassador at large for war crimes, was in Madrid last week to discuss with officials from Spain's interior, justice and foreign ministries to discuss the case of a Spanish citizen held at Guantanamo. Prosper confirmed Friday that the man was not among those newly released.
Prosper said discussions with the Spanish government were focused on whether the Spaniard should remain in Guantanamo or be prosecuted in Spain. He acknowledged that Madrid had pressured the United States to study the case.
Likewise, a number of other countries have pressed the United States to try or release suspects, some of whom have been held two years and all of whom are incommunicado and have not been allowed lawyers.
In addition to those released Friday, Prosper said several dozen others will be sent to their home countries at an undisclosed time for a lengthy process of investigation, detention and prosecution. He described them as posing "a medium-level threat" to the world.