More nations must take in Guantanamo inmates once the U.S.-run prison closes, the U.N.'s torture investigator said Monday, insisting that many were held simply because they were "in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Manfred Nowak told Austrian radio he hopes more countries will set aside their misgivings and show solidarity with the incoming government of President-elect Barack Obama, who has vowed to shut the detention center in eastern Cuba.
Most European nations have refused to accept Guantanamo inmates, citing national security concerns. Nowak told public broadcaster ORF he understands their reluctance, "since the U.S. government for many years represented (the prisoners) as the most dangerous ever captured."
Yet many are harmless, Nowak said, appealing to EU nations to think of them as refugees and treat them as though they had fled persecution and gone directly to Europe to seek safe haven.
"Many (detainees) were clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time, and simply fell into the hands of Pakistani bounty hunters paid by the Americans," Nowak said. "They had nothing to do with Sept. 11."
U.S. officials did not immediately react to Nowak's insistence that most detainees are harmless.
Officials from France, Germany, Portugal and Switzerland have all recently said they are looking into accepting detainees from the U.S. prison, and Albania and Sweden acknowledge they have already taken in a few inmates.
But Australia said Saturday it has twice rejected a U.S. request to do so, and Britain said it hasn't yet been asked.
Croatia, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway are among other EU countries who have said they also haven't gotten any formal requests from Washington to accept detainees.
"We do not think it is up to us" to house them, said Rob Dekker, a spokesman for the Dutch Foreign Ministry.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said the U.S. government has renewed requests with a number of unidentified countries in recent months in a bid to resettle detainees.
"While I can't discuss the specifics of our bilateral negotiations with our friends and allies on this issue, we have been in contact with dozens of countries about resettling those detainees at Guantanamo Bay eligible for transfer or release," he said.
Nowak pressed his own country, Austria, to take in some of the roughly 250 prisoners still held — even though the government has ruled that out.
Gates calls for proposals
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called for proposals for transferring the remaining 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. Algeria has taken back nearly a dozen detainees, although others expressly asked not to be sent home, fearing recriminations.
Some have been held without charge since the prison camp opened in 2002 to hold so-called "enemy combatants" accused of links to the al-Qaida terror network or the Taliban.
The Pentagon has said it plans to try about 80 prisoners at military commissions, but more than 100 are considered too dangerous to let go and won't be prosecuted.
About 60 are slated for transfer from Guantanamo, but the Pentagon says they can't go home because their governments won't accept them, might release them and create a security risk for the U.S., or might even torture them.
Meanwhile Monday, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that the U.S. government can keep secret the identities of detainees who allegedly were abused at Guantanamo.