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Europe slow to welcome Guantanamo inmates

Across Europe, President Obama's decision to shut the Guantanamo Bay prison has raised an awkward question: Which nations that railed against the camp will take in released prisoners?
Image: Guantanamo Bay
The Camp Delta detention center at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba is set to be shut down within a year. Brennan Linsley / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Across Europe, President Barack Obama's decision to shut the Guantanamo Bay prison has raised an awkward question: Which EU states that railed against the camp will offer new lives to released prisoners?

The U.S. Defense Department says about 50 of the 245 prisoners awaiting freedom cannot go home again on security or political grounds, raising the need to find an alternative place to send them. But European Union members long critical of Guantanamo shied away Friday from any firm commitments to help.

Ireland has joined Portugal, France, Germany and Switzerland in saying it probably would participate in an EU-organized plan that might take shape at a summit of foreign ministers Monday in Brussels.

But it already appears likely that Europe will leave some of Guantanamo's inmates in limbo behind a policy of: No terrorists please.

Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said European Union members should agree on terms and conditions for housing at least some of the 50 "as a logical consequence of our arguing for the closure of Guantanamo."

'Non-combatants' only
He emphasized, however, that "no one is talking about terrorists or anything like that coming to EU countries. We're talking about non-combatants — people who clearly have no history of any terrorist activity."

Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said in a written statement to The Associated Press that all EU countries thinking of taking ex-prisoners "will have to have regard to difficult security issues which arise." He declined an AP request to explain what those concerns were and how EU leaders could overcome them.

Ahern said in his prepared remarks he expects the Brussels talks to promote "a united and positive response at EU level to any request made by the new U.S. administration for help in bringing about the closure of Guantanamo."

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said the Obama administration was carrying on diplomatic contacts begun on Bush's watch with "allies and partners, including a number of European countries," about the transfer of some detainees. He declined to discuss any specifics.

Diplomatic and security officials across Europe acknowledge that in the Obama era their nations risk exposure of double standards — complaining of American injustice, but presuming that ex-Guantanamo prisoners are too hot to handle themselves. Most nations in the 27-country bloc remain in the position of waiting for an EU request that they might prefer never comes.

Italy, whose conservative government long supported former President George W. Bush's "war on terror," is among those skeptical that Europe will easily embrace fugitives from Azerbaijan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Chad, China, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

"Here we have the first example of how this new Obama politics will demand more of Europe — not less — than Bush's so-called unilateralism," said Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who declined to add Italy to the list of willing destinations for ex-Guantanamo inmates. "America will probably ask some European countries to take in these people, who will no longer be at Guantanamo but won't be free to wander the streets of New York."

Swiss sidestep
Switzerland, which has made positive public comments about an EU-wide initiative, now cautions that such a decision is really up to authorities within its individual cantons. And those local authorities are sounding cool on the idea.

Karin Keller-Suter, vice president of the Conference of Cantonal Justice and Police Directors, said its members "would expect a thorough security examination" before any ex-Guantanamo prisoners win admission to Switzerland.

In France, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner mirrored the Irish line that the EU must lead the way. He said France would cooperate in principle — but would adopt a "case by case" approach to sheltering ex-inmates.

A few European nations say, bluntly, that the United States created the Guantanamo problem itself and should bear the consequences on its own, too.

"I've spent most of my waking hours the last three years in this post cleaning up after the U.S.," said Swedish Migration Minister Tobias Billstrom, who argued that Sweden had already made a home for thousands of Iraqi refugees since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. "I think that the U.S. perhaps should start to do some cleaning on its own before asking for help from others."