SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department on Friday made public the names of 55 Guantanamo prisoners who have been approved for transfer to the custody of other countries, releasing information sought by human rights organizations.
The announcement, which reverses a 2009 decision, was a surprise to organizations that had filed FOIA requests seeking the information.
"We did not expect this," said Omar Farah, attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. "This is an important development."
Farah said the government's action will be a boost for lawyers representing detainees at the U.S. military base in Cuba. "We can now advocate publicly for the release of our clients by name," he said.
The government's move has no immediate, practical effect on the inmates' detention. Inclusion on the list does not mean that the U.S. has absolved them of any wrongdoing or that it believes they pose no threat, and there was no indication of when any might be sent elsewhere.
In 2009, Ambassador Daniel Fried, the Obama administration's special envoy on detainee issues, argued then that it was necessary to keep the prisoners' identities secret while the U.S. negotiated transfers to other countries.
"It is important for the U.S. government to have the latitude to approach potential destination countries in a discreet and confidential manner, in order to minimize the risk of undue publicity," Fried said in a statement at the time.
But the government said in a court filing Friday that the successful transfers of other detainees no longer warranted such concerns. It noted that 40 detainees have been resettled in new countries and 28 were repatriated to their native countries since 2009.
ACLU lawyer Zachary Katznelson welcomed the naming of 55 prisoners approved for transfers, saying it could help speed up their release to another country. "Their lawyers can publicly push for their transfer," he said.
But he urged the government to release the names of 31 other detainees also approved for transfer.
"Today's release is a partial victory for transparency, and it should also be a spur to action," he said. "These men have now spent three years in prison since our military and intelligence agencies all agreed they should be released."
Katznelson said the ACLU has also filed an FOIA request seeking the names of prisoners in three other categories: indefinite detention, conditional detention and prosecution.
Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said the 55 detainees named should be transferred immediately out of Guantanamo.
"Indefinite detention is a human rights violation and it must end," she said.
Most of the detainees on the list are from Yemen, including Mohammed Al-Hamiri, whom Farah represents.
Farah said more than one-third of Guantanamo's prisoners are men from Yemen who have been cleared for transfer. Currently, the U.S. will not move any Yemeni detainees back to their home country because the U.S. believes it is not stable enough to prevent them from potentially resuming militant activity.
There are 167 detainees now at Guantanamo.