Few Welcome Mats for Guantanamo Detainees

International human rights groups have expressed mixed reactions to the European Union’s lukewarm pledge to accept some detainees from U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay once the facility closes.

After some prodding, European leaders said they are willing to accept detainees released from the Guantanamo Bay prison as long as the U.S. shows that they pose no risk, but they made no specific promises as to where and when they would take the inmates.

U.S President Barack Obama said in an executive order issued last week that he would close the controversial U.S. prison on a naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"It’s a shame that the EU couldn’t send a stronger signal to the U.S. and its own citizens," said Joanna Gomez Cardoso of Amnesty International, adding that very few countries actually said they were willing to accept detainees.

"The fact that European countries are speaking about this issue is an important step," said Emi MacLean, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). "But those who have been imprisoned for over seven years are in need of urgent action. Guantanamo will not be closed without the commitment of countries to take in those stranded there for lack of a safe country to return to."

Other rights groups, however, were more hopeful that the EU would take a more solid stance toward helping the U.S. permanently close the prison.

"We acknowledge that there remains a great deal of details to work out, but the political and logistical circumstances could not be better for making things happen," said Julia Hall, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch.

This follows a campaign by a coalition of human rights groups in the U.S. and in Europe to urge the European ministers to offer humanitarian protection to some detainees. Those detainees are ones who would be slated for release, but who face a credible risk of torture or other maltreatment if returned to their home countries.

Days before the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting on Monday, the coalition issued a letter to the ministers stating that Obama would need European help to carry out his plan of closing the prison camp.

"There is a real opportunity for the new U.S. administration to turn a new leaf, close down Guantanamo Bay and end, once and for all, the appalling era of illegal detentions and human rights abuses. This can only be achieved if EU countries step up and offer protection for those men who still languish in Guantanamo simply because there is nowhere safe for them to return," said MacLean.

In early December, Portugal’s foreign minister, Luis Amado, said Portugal was willing to shelter and resettle some detainees and called on the rest of Europe to do the same.

"The time has come for the European Union to step forward," he said in a letter to European ministers.

Ireland and Switzerland are also strong advocates. Italy and Spain said they would consider accepting detainees, but only under a plan endorsed by the EU.

Of the 245 detainees at Guantanamo, 60 are deemed "hard cases," meaning they have been cleared for release by the U.S. but cannot go home out of a concern that they will not be safe. The detainees are from countries including Algeria, China, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan.

The State Department has been working for five years to persuade other countries to take in some of the detainees. According to John Bellinger, III, the State Department’s legal adviser, Albania has accepted five detainees belonging to the ethnic Uighur minority group of western China.

In mid-December three Algerians were released and flown to their adopted country of Bosnia-Herzegovina under a federal judge’s order. The men, all naturalized Bosnian citizens, were suspected of participating in a plot to bomb the U.S. embassy there in 2001. Authorities later dropped the allegations. Two others who were also supposed to be released under the judge’s order remain at Guantanamo.

About 100 of the detainees are Yemenis. U.S. officials have been working separately with Yemen to ensure that they can return home safely.

Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, and Denmark have rejected the idea of accepting detainees, arguing that they are the sole responsibility of the U.S.

"None of these prisoners have anything whatsoever to do with Denmark," Danish foreign minister Per Stig Moller told the Washington Post.

The willingness of some European countries to accept prisoners marks a major shift in attitude.

According to U.S. diplomats and human rights groups, late last year European countries rejected the George W. Bush administration’s request to take in 16 Uighurs, four Uzbeks, an Egyptian, a Palestinian, and a Somali, citing potential security risks as well as internal political opposition.

"The Bush administration produced the problem," Karsten Voigt, coordinator of German-U.S. cooperation at the German Foreign Ministry, said in a phone interview with the Washington Post in late December. "With Obama, the difference is that he tries to solve it."

The seven-year-old prison facility has long been the subject of international criticism. Allegations of inhumane interrogation techniques, torture, and mistreatment of prisoners have plagued the Bush administration.

Obama’s signing of the order to close Guantanamo Bay within the year was met with praise and applause by the international community. However, according to Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the order does not require any detainees’ release or transfer. Any detainee still in U.S. custody after a year will reside is some other facility.

The order reads, "Any remaining detainees still in custody shall be returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country, or transferred to another United States detention facility in a manner consistent with law and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States."

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Author: Marina Litvinsky

Marina Litvinsky writes for Inter Press Service.