WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 — The United States will soon release five of the nine British citizens detained at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, British and American officials said today.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the five would be released “in the next few weeks.” He said the five would face questioning under Britain’s Terrorism Act 2000 upon their return but would be “treated fairly and properly.”
Discussions on the four others were continuing, Mr. Straw said, but he insisted that they be tried “in accordance with international standards or returned to the U.K.,” The Associated Press reported from London..
All nine were captured while fighting alongside Taliban militants against American and British troops in Afghanistan, according to United States officials.
Two of the five were part of a small group designated by American authorities for trial before military commissions, but British law authorities had expressed concern about such a review.
Earlier today, Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller of Denmark said that a Dane held at the camp would be released as well and would face no charges upon his return.
“Under Danish law it is not possible to put him on trial,” the foreign minister told the Danish Parliament. “He will come to Denmark as a free man.”
In Washington, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said the United States had received assurances from Denmark and Britain that the detainees being released would not pose “any future threat to America or our friends and allies.”
A Spaniard was returned Friday to Spain, where he reportedly faced immediate interrogation by a magistrate investigating terrorism.
The fate of about 10 other European detainees, including French, Swedish and German nationals, remained unclear. Nearly 90 detainees have been released in recent months to several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and about 650 remain.
The detentions have been widely criticized and furiously debated since the American military first began flying detainees from Afghanistan to the United States base on Cuba. There at first they were kept in open-sided cells.
The issue has raised prickly legal issues and difficult diplomatic challenges. It has caused strains even with some of the closest American allies, including Britain and Australia, both key supporters in the war in Iraq.
When President Bush traveled to London in November to meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair and thank him for British assistance in that war, there was wide expectation that an agreement would be reached to release at least some of the British detainees. Mr. Blair’s critics said this was the least Britain might expect in return for its help in the war.
Instead, Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush said only that the matter was still being discussed.
Today, Mr. Straw refused to find fault with the lengthy detention of the nine Britons. They had been captured, he said, in an “entirely unique situation.” The dimensions of the terrorist threat that had become clear on Sept. 11, 2001, changed the way such detainees had to be handled, Mr. Straw said.
Negotiations over the release of British detainees had rotated partly around the sticky question of whether they would be jailed, tried or freed upon returning home. This remained unclear.
The Pentagon has announced plans to establish a panel to review Guantánamo detainees’ cases annually to see which of them posed no threat and could be released. But senior Defense Department officials said Feb. 12 that they expected to keep large numbers of the detainees for many years, even indefinitely. Some already have been held for as long as two years without being charged.
American officials have suggested that more than 100 of those deemed less dangerous might be eligible for eventual release.
The uncertainties of such an approach and the dearth of legal representation for detainees have provoked outrage from some foreign governments and from international and American human rights groups. Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, recently denounced indefinite detentions without trial as “reprehensible.”
And three United States senators — John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans, and Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington — sent a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in December saying it was time to release the Guantánamo detainees or bring them to trial. Mr. McCain was held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for more than five years.
American officials have insisted, however, that the detainees — dubbed “the worst of the worst” — must be viewed as prisoners in a war with no foreseeable end, committed militants who would attack again if freed. “What we’re doing at Guantánamo is more understandable in the war context,” one official told The New York Times.
“We need to keep in mind that the people in U.S. custody are not there because they stole a car or robbed a bank,” Mr. Rumsfeld said Feb. 13 in Miami. “They are enemy combatants and terrorists who are being detained for acts of war against our country and that is why different rules have to apply.”
Detainees had provided invaluable information in the fight against terrorism, Mr. Rumsfeld said.
They had “revealed Al Qaeda leadership structures, operatives, funding mechanisms, communication methods, training and selection programs, travel patterns, support infrastructures and plans for attacking the United States and other friendly countries.”