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EU nations warm to idea of taking in detainees

Wed., Dec. 24, 2008

LONDON – When the U.S. government asked years ago that countries take in detainees freed from the Guantanamo military prison, only tiny Albania answered the call.

The rest of Europe had long criticized the U.S. military detention center in Cuba and the Bush administration for opening it in January 2002 to hold “enemy combatants” accused of having links to the al-Qaida terrorist network or Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime.

Now Europe appears to be open to helping, as President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to close the prison. Most Europeans held in Guantanamo have been returned to their home countries, but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called for proposals for transferring the remaining 250 or so detainees – amid concerns that some could be persecuted if sent back to their home nations.

Most come from Yemen, but others are from Azerbaijan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Chad, China and Saudi Arabia. Some have been held without charge since the prison camp opened.

Portugal, France, Germany and Switzerland said they would consider taking in some of the remaining detainees.

“We’ve encouraged other nations to accept detainees from Guantanamo, and we’re pleased with the recent discussions,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon said Tuesday, adding that U.S. authorities wanted to make sure the detainees – if released – would not be mistreated or pose a threat to the international community.

The U.S. military had said it would prosecute about 70 prisoners in military tribunals, but fewer than 20 have been charged. It is unclear what would happen to them should the detention camp be shut and the trials halted.

The Bush administration holds that the Guantanamo facility should be closed, but it has fought doggedly to keep all remaining inmates outside the United States, arguing that they are too dangerous to bring into the country. Most speculation about the possibility of housing the prisoners within the U.S. has centered on the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. But officials there have said the facility is not secure enough, and Kansas senators Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts six months ago protested in a letter to the Bush administration that Leavenworth’s only secure wing was too small.

A French diplomat said Tuesday that France was considering hosting Guantanamo detainees, but said a Europewide discussion was needed. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.

A lawyer who defended ex-Guantanamo inmates in French courts, William Bourdon, said the French government was in discussions to take in Guantanamo prisoners.

“There is an obligation of solidarity with these people who were held for so long without legal recourse,” Bourdon said, without elaborating.

German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier has asked officials to look into the legal, political and practical aspects of accepting detainees, as “he does not want to see the plan to close Guantanamo fail due to the need to find somewhere for those prisoners,” according to ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner on Monday.

EU nations are more inclined to help resolve the Guantanamo situation now that President George W. Bush is leaving office, an official from the bloc said Tuesday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

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