European Union leaders said Monday they are willing to take prisoners being released from the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay — but only after detailed screening to ensure they don't import a terrorist.
Foreign ministers from the 27-nation bloc discussed the fate of up to 60 Guantanamo inmates who, if freed, cannot be returned to their homelands because they would face abuse, imprisonment or death. The prisoners come from Azerbaijan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Chad, China, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose nation played a lead role in Monday's discussions on Guantanamo, said the European Commission will draft a formal plan in coming weeks defining a common course for EU members to pursue with the new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama. In his first week in office, Obama ordered Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba to be closed within a year.
Kouchner said the European plan was likely to include a formal EU request for legal and security experts to visit the prison — and interview potential immigrants about where they wanted to resettle and why.
But Kouchner said Europe still had far too many unanswered questions to commit to accepting any particular prisoners. He said the U.S. and EU had yet to nail down whether prisoners would be legally treated as refugees or asylum-seekers, whether they would face heavy security restrictions in their new homes — and whether some prisoners were simply too dangerous to come to Europe at all.
'Long process' ahead
"Yes, of course this is risky," Kouchner told The Associated Press in an interview. "So we have to think about each case, and not to accept anything or anyone easily. It will be a long process." He said France would accept released prisoners "under extreme, precise conditions only."
"Legally this is difficult. Each of the 27 nations, they have different positions and different legal frameworks to accept or to refuse such people," he said.
While the French appeared keen to press other EU members on the issue, their successors as EU president — the Czechs — admitted that most nations were hoping to minimize their involvement with Guantanamo's homeless.
"Nobody is hot about it, that's perfectly true," said Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, referring to Monday's informal lunchtime talks about taking Guantanamo prisoners.
"We have to clear (up) a lot of things with the other side, too," he said, referring to the Obama administration.
The U.S. Defense Department says that, of the more than 240 prisoners currently in Guantanamo, about 100 are considered too dangerous to be released from U.S. custody; about 80 could face criminal charges in U.S. courts but could be freed if acquitted; and about 60 have been cleared for release — but cannot be sent home because their own countries would likely harm them.
Of those 60, only 19 — chiefly ethnic Uighurs from China — have been reclassified as civilians, while the rest remain "enemy combatants."
Vetting could take months
A report in Monday's Washington Post said many case files of Guantanamo inmates were in disarray, suggesting that any candidates for resettlement in Europe could be months away from security vetting.
Some EU foreign ministers said their own countries — long critical of the Bush administration's operation of Guantanamo — would be accused of hypocrisy if they didn't take at least one ex-prisoner and were seen to be helping Obama with the shutdown.
"There is no question that chief responsibility to do with solving the problem of this detention center lies with those who set it up, the Americans themselves," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. "But it is also a question of our credibility — of whether we support the dismantling of this American camp or not."
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Britain had its plate full in dealing with its own nationals in U.S. custody and ruled out taking ex-prisoners from other nations.
He said Britain had already taken nine British nationals and three foreigners who have British residency rights, while the cases of two others still in Guantanamo were being processed.
"We feel that is already a significant contribution," Miliband said. "We're happy to offer our experience to other European countries, as they think about what steps they want to make, to help in the closure of Guantanamo Bay."
Finland's foreign minister, Alexander Stubb, emphasized the widespread view that the U.S. administration was not yet in position to clear any terror suspects.
"We are jumping the gun here a little bit, because the Americans haven't given us an offer or required us to take anyone on board," Stubb said.