GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — A turning point in the Bush administration's counter-terrorism strategy of indefinite confinement at the U.S. detention center here came on a balmy day in February, when two Afghans and three Tajiks were ferried across the bay, shackled and blindfolded, for their flights home.
The men's departure reduced the detainee population to 385 -- meaning that of the 777 men brought here over six years as suspected security threats, more prisoners had left than remained. Since then, at least 80 other Guantanamo inmates have been released.
Although four new prisoners were brought in from secret detention sites in 2007, the releases and repatriations accelerated a diplomatic effort begun last year to muffle the international outcry over the practice of preventive detention.
As the Supreme Court ponders whether to let the remaining prisoners challenge their detention in federal courts, back-channel negotiations are augmenting a sense among those still confined to metal mesh cells or concrete-walled maximum-security prisons that they may be eligible for release sooner than the previously proposed benchmark for liberation: a U.S. victory in the global "war on terror."
"We do see and hear detainees talking about 'when I get out of here,' " said Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, commander of the joint task force running the network of prison and interrogation sites arrayed on a rocky, cactus-studded stretch of coastline. "I don't believe any of them believe it's a bottomless pit, that they're going to be here for the rest of their lives."
But as State Department officials negotiate with governments to take back their citizens, the Guantanamo population has become dominated by committed militants, Buzby said.
"What we are left with are more of the hard-core bad actors who have a greater capacity to misbehave and conduct assaults on the guard force," said Buzby, predicting that the repatriations would taper off as the number drops toward 200.
Pentagon prosecutors have said that no more than 80 prisoners are likely to be charged with war crimes and tried by military commissions. Human rights monitors predict the number will be far fewer, maybe two dozen, including the 15 so-called high-value detainees suspected of roles in the Sept. 11 and other major attacks.
That suggests that more than 150 could remain in Guantanamo's legal limbo for years.
"There are a number of guys who are never going to be able to be sent home, because they come from countries with terrible human rights records where there is no intention of providing any kind of legal process," said Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel for Reprieve, a human rights group representing detainees whose path home is littered with risks and diplomatic obstructions.
He pointed to the experience of Abdullah bin Omar, a 51-year-old Tunisian released in June on that government's assurances that he would be treated humanely. Bin Omar was deprived of food and water and threatened with having his wife and daughters raped in his presence unless he signed a confession to the terrorism charges on which he was convicted in absentia during his Guantanamo detention, Katznelson said.
Algerian prisoner Ahmed Belbacha, who was taken by U.S. forces out of Pakistan, where he was working as an oil-company accountant in 2001, has been fighting transfer to his homeland on the grounds that he will be tortured for suspected alliance with the Islamic Army Group, which has been battling the Algerian military for years.
Syrian Maasoum Abdah Mouhammad, of the repressed Kurdish minority, fears he will never leave here because authorities in Damascus, the Syrian capital, won't take up his cause.
More than half of the detainees released this year have been repatriated to Saudi Arabia, where they have been shepherded through a program to discourage a return to extremism. Of the 132 Saudis brought here, only 23 remain. Most of the 100 or so Afghans arrested during the chaotic U.S. invasion of their homeland in late 2001 also have been returned to Kabul, and transfer of the rest is pending completion of a detention facility the U.S. is building there.
"The obvious fact is that there are very close relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and virtually no relations between the U.S. and Syria," lawyer Matthew J. O'Hara said after a recent visit to the Syrian Kurd he represents pro bono. "Prisoners from countries like Syria . . . are at the bottom of the barrel as far as U.S. diplomatic efforts to release Guantanamo prisoners are concerned."
Yemenis make up the largest group of prisoners, 97 at the last official disclosure from their homeland, followed by about 25 Algerians, 17 Chinese Muslims of the Uighur minority, 11 Tunisians, 13 Pakistanis, 10 Libyans and 10 Syrians.
The prospect of endless detention has been cited by prisoners' attorneys for the recurring waves of suicide attempts and other incidents that the military jailers refer to as "manipulative self-injurious behavior."