Two dozen prisoners were cleared for transfer from Guantanamo Bay last year even though US military panels found they still posed a threat to the US and its allies.
Dozens more were cleared even though they didn't show up for their hearings. One Saudi arrested in Afghanistan was approved for release after offering a peculiar account that he had gone to the Taliban-controlled country to lose weight.
Pentagon documents show seemingly inconsistent decisions to release men declared by the administration of US President George W. Bush to be among the US' most-hardened enemies. Coupled with accusations that some detainees have been held for years on little evidence, the decisions raise questions about whether they were arbitrary.
Human-rights groups contend the documents show the military panels, known as Administrative Review Boards (ARB), often are overridden by political expediency at Guantanamo, where about 340 men are still held.
"What it says on your passport is more important than what it says in your ARB," said Ben Wizner, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, noting that European citizens at Guantanamo were among the first to get out amid intense lobbying by their countries. "It's all about diplomatic pressure."
The Pentagon created the ARB process in 2004 as the US Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was filling up with men captured around the world in the war on terrorist groups. It said the boards would "help ensure no one is detained any longer than is warranted, and that no one is released who remains a threat to our nation's security."
The boards hold sessions in an air-conditioned trailer, hearing testimony from shackled detainees and making recommendations on whether to transfer, release or continue to hold the men. The final decisions are made by Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, who is not bound by the recommendations, but who, officials say, usually follows them.
The Pentagon released transcripts and memos last month from last year's hearings.
Based on those sessions, England ordered 273 inmates kept at Guantanamo and 55 transferred to authorities in other nations. He didn't order any outright releases, but most detainees transferred from Guantanamo have been freed soon after arriving home.
The heavily censored documents indicate testimony before the panels often had little effect on the outcome. Of the 55 detainees cleared for transfer to their homelands or countries of residence, only 14 participated in their hearings. And 24 found to still pose a threat were ordered transferred by England anyway.
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