ORLANDO, Fla. — Three teenage boys from Afghanistan whose detention at the U.S. prison camp for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, stirred an international outcry were freed on Thursday, military officials said.
The boys, believed to have been from 13 to 15 years old when they were brought to Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, were released after officials determined that they no longer posed a threat to the United States, according to a Pentagon statement.
They were flown to Afghanistan, where they are to be resettled by Afghan authorities with the assistance of UNICEF and other nongovernmental organizations.
“It was our goal to return them to an environment where they have an opportunity to reintegrate into civil society,” the Pentagon statement said.
Critics of their detention welcomed the announcement.
“The U.S. is doing the right thing by returning these children to their homes,” said Jo Becker, child-rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “At the same time, we’re disappointed that it didn’t happen sooner.”
The news last April that authorities had discovered children among the suspected al Qaeda and Taliban supporters at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay presented another target for international criticism of the already controversial detention-and-interrogation operation.
The United States is holding about 650 prisoners indefinitely, the majority in what amounts to a super-maximum-security prison, without criminal charge or prisoner-of-war status.
It is unclear when the boys arrived at Joint Task Force-Guantanamo. But after medical tests determined that they were under 16, officials say, they were moved from the prison called Camp Delta to a separate compound set up to resemble a house and staffed by guards experienced in working with young people for a program of counseling and education.
The International Committee of the Red Cross called Guantanamo Bay an inappropriate place to hold minors. UNICEF, Human Rights Watch and other groups called for the boys’ release.
The Pentagon statement on Thursday offered new details of their capture.
“The juveniles were removed from the battlefield to prevent further harm to U.S. forces and to themselves,” the statement read. “Two of the three juvenile detainees were captured during U.S. and allied forces raids on Taliban camps. One juvenile detainee was captured while trying to obtain weapons to fight American forces.”
“Age is not a determining factor in detention. We detain enemy combatants who engaged in armed conflict against our forces or provided support to those fighting against us.”
Release of Three Children a Welcome Step, But Others Still Held
- Human Rights Watch
The boys were released after officials determined that they no longer posed a threat to the United States, had no further intelligence value and were not going to be tried by the United States for any crimes, according to the statement.
Their names would not be released, according to the statement, because of concern that al Qaeda or Taliban sympathizers might threaten their safety.
In New York, a UNICEF spokesman said that U.S. officials had asked the agency to help the children reintegrate with their families or extended families.
“We are already working closely with the Afghan government to contact families and lay the groundwork for return,” spokesman Oliver Phillips said.
The release of the boys brings to 87 the number of prisoners freed since the camp began accepting captives from Afghanistan in January 2002. Four others have been transferred to Saudi Arabia for further detention.
U.S. Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, the special ambassador for war crimes, said this week that preparations were underway to release up to two dozen more.
Meanwhile, work continues on an expansion of Camp Delta. Joint Task Force Commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller has said the operation will continue for the duration of the global war on terror.
With the release of the three boys, both Becker and Phillips said that officials should turn their attention to the other juvenile detainees at Guantanamo Bay – a small number of 16- and 17-year-olds who have not been separated from the adult population.