Bush: Fate of Saudi prisoners at Guantanamo to be decided case by case

Tuesday, January 29th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) _ The fates of more than 100 Saudis detained at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base will be decided individually, President Bush said, despite a request from Saudi Arabia that they all be returned home.

Saudi Arabia said Monday that 100 of its citizens are at Guantanamo, making Saudis the largest group of the 158 suspected al-Qaida and Taliban fighters detained on this remote naval base in southeastern Cuba.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef on Monday urged the United States to turn over the Saudi detainees for interrogation at home.

But Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally in the Middle East, has been criticized in the United States by some who say the ruling royal family has done little to crack down on terrorists and extremists.

``There are a lot of detainees around the world as a result of this first phase in the war against terror,'' Bush said Monday.

''... So there's a lot of Saudi citizens that chose to fight for al-Qaida and/or the Taliban that we want to know more about. And if so, we'll make a decision on a case-by-case basis as to whether they go back to Saudi Arabia or not.''

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers that carried out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were Saudis, the United States says, though Saudi officials insist no Saudi involvement is proven.

Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida network is believed to have carried out the attacks, was a Saudi national until his citizenship was revoked in the 1990s.

Monday's disclosure by Saudi Arabia clarified some of the mystery over the nationalities of the 158 men who spend their days in orange jumpsuits and open-air cells at the heavily fortified Camp in eastern Cuba.

U.S. military officials have not identified the detainees captured in Afghanistan, except to say they come from 25 countries.

A handful of countries _ including Australia, Britain, Sweden and Yemen _ said they have citizens among the detainees. France sent a delegation to the base to verify the citizenship of several French-speaking suspects.

U.S. officials say the Guantanamo detainees are among the most dangerous al-Qaida and Taliban fighters captured during the U.S.-led war on terrorism, launched Oct. 7.

Australian detainee David Hicks, 26, allegedly threatened to kill an American upon his arrival at Guantanamo, U.S. officials said. Hicks' father, Terry, has said his son _ a recent convert to Islam _ called home 17 days after the Sept. 11 attacks to say he was with the Taliban.

Australian newspapers have printed photos of Hicks as a freckled 10-year-old schoolboy alongside a photo of him as a bazooka-toting soldier in battle fatigues taken in Europe where he fought with Muslims in the Kosovo Liberation Army.

His case has been compared with that of John Walker Lindh, the American captured fighting with the Taliban. Lindh was flown back to the United States last week to face charges, including conspiracy to kill fellow Americans, that could bring life in prison.

Apart from those held in Guantanamo, 309 suspects were in U.S. military custody in Afghanistan, military officials there said Monday.

A senior defense official at the Pentagon said Monday about one-fifth of the 482 prisoners held in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay are Saudi nationals. The next biggest group by nationality is Yemeni, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Bush said his administration was still considering the legalities surrounding the detainees' status, but during a news conference in Washington with visiting Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, the president said: ``They will not be treated as prisoners of war.''

Human rights groups, some British legislators and some European governments have been pushing the United States to designate the detainees prisoners of war, guaranteeing them greater legal protections under the Geneva Convention.

Several of America's closest allies, including France, have expressed concern over the treatment of the suspects, who have been photographed shackled and blindfolded.

On Wednesday, interrogators from several U.S. civilian and military agencies began questioning the detainees, who were not allowed lawyers.

Britain said last week it wants the United States to return British suspects to stand trial at home. Besides the three Britons held at Guantanamo, the British Foreign Office said Monday that two other suspects believed to be British are being held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said prisoners would be repatriated to ``those countries that we feel will handle them appropriately.''