WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States has botched the handling of inmates at Guantanamo, holding men for years without reliable evidence while releasing others who posed a grave threat, according to leaked secret files.
The trove of more than 700 classified documents released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks showed US officials struggling with often flawed evidence and confused about the guilt or innocence of detainees held at the prison at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Hundreds of inmates who turned out to have no serious terror links were held without trial, based on vague or inaccurate information, including accounts from unreliable fellow detainees or statements from men who had been abused or tortured, the New York Times quoted the documents as saying.
One impoverished Afghan farmer with no ties to militants was held for two years without trial in a case of mistaken identity, the documents showed, while an 89-year-old man suffering from dementia was held for 10 months without charges.
But US authorities in 2004 decided to release Abdullah Mehsud, a Taliban extremist who duped his interrogators into believing he had been conscripted by the insurgents as a driver.
"Detainee does not pose a future threat to the US or US interests," said a 2003 document, quoted by the Times.
Mehsud, who gave a false name to his American interrogators, was sent back to Afghanistan where he organized a Taliban unit to assault US troops, planned an attack on Pakistan's interior ministry that claimed 31 lives and set off a suicide bomb in 2007 in Pakistan -- winning praise from Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
President Barack Obama has tried to close the controversial Guantanamo prison and his administration denounced the "unfortunate" release of the classified documents, part of a massive cache of secret memos passed to WikiLeaks last year.
The Obama and Bush administrations had "made every effort to act with the utmost care and diligence in transferring detainees from Guantanamo," the government said in a statement.
Human rights groups, who have portrayed Guantanamo prison as a legal black hole, said the documents showed the need for courts to review the evidence against each detainee.
"These documents are remarkable because they show just how questionable the government's basis has been for detaining hundreds of people, in some cases indefinitely, at Guantanamo," said Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The documents are the fruit of the original sin by which the rule of law was scrapped when Guantanamo detainees were first rounded up," Shamsi said in a statement.
The New York Times was among a group of US and European media outlets that obtained the more than 700 secret documents, including The Washington Post, National Public Radio, The Daily Telegraph, El Pais, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and La Repubblica.
The files also contained revelations about possible Al-Qaeda plots.
A top detainee, senior Al-Qaeda commander Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, told interrogators a nuclear bomb had been hidden somewhere in Europe to be detonated if bin Laden is ever caught or killed.
Mohammed also alleged he had set up two cells to attack London's Heathrow airport in 2002, planning to crash a hijacked airliner into one of the terminals.
Out of the 779 people who have passed through the Guantanamo prison, at least 150 detainees were innocent Afghans or Pakistanis, including drivers, farmers and chefs, according to The Daily Telegraph.
They were rounded up as part of frantic intelligence-gathering in war zones and then detained at Guantanamo due to incorrect information or simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, the British daily said.
Overall, US military officers considered only 220 of all the suspects detained at Guantanamo to be dangerous extremists.
Another 380 were deemed to be low-ranking foot soldiers who traveled to Afghanistan or were part of the Taliban, the Telegraph wrote.
Of the 172 prisoners who remain at Guantanamo, 130 have been rated as posing a "high-risk" threat.
The New York Times also said the files revealed little about the harsh interrogation tactics used at Guantanamo that sparked condemnation around the world.