Facing pressure from a Supreme Court challenge and increasing tension over the issue with the British government, the Bush administration has decided to release up to 100 of the estimated 660 prisoners from 44 countries held at Guantanamo Bay.

The prisoners are due to be released in two waves, the first around Christmas, with the second some time in January.

Those scheduled for release include three juvenile prisoners aged between 13 and 15. Their detention has brought widespread international condemnation, particularly from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International who labeled the treatment of the youths “repugnant.” In an open letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld earlier this year, Human Rights Watch expressed deep concern that “like adult detainees, these children are unable to talk with attorneys, have extremely limited, if any, contact with their families, are subject to interrogation, and are being held indefinitely.”

It is believed that eight of the prisoners to be released are British citizens, following negotiations and rumored deals between the British and U.S. governments. It is unclear whether the British detainees will simply be allowed to go free, or whether part of the terms of their release will be an agreement to plead to lesser charges for which they will be jailed in Britain. The continued detention of British citizens at Guantanamo Bay has been a source of problems for British Prime Minister Tony Blair; it is viewed by many as clear evidence that the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain is merely an empty catchphrase. News of the move to release the UK citizens comes less than a week after one of Britain’s most senior judges described Guantanamo Bay as “a monstrous failure of justice.”

Domestically, the Pentagon has had to deal with increasing demands for a legal solution to the problem of detainees stuck in legal limbo. Three retired officers have filed a Supreme Court amicus brief on behalf of 16 of the detainees who have been held for almost two years. The three officers view the continuing detention of prisoners as a potential danger to U.S. troops, undermining the Geneva Conventions that would otherwise protect future U.S. POWs.

The three retired officers are joined by World War II POWs, former federal judges and diplomats, all urging the Supreme Court to intervene on behalf of U.S. international legal obligations. The brief filed by the World War II vets contains the story of one POW captured by the Germans in WWII. The POW, Leslie H. Jackson, “believes that his survival and relatively good health while in captivity are the result of the German Army’s adherence to the 1929 Geneva Conventions.” Jackson’s treatment is contrasted with that of two other WWII POWs who were held by Japan, which had not ratified the Geneva Conventions and did not recognize the prisoners’ rights.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.