Ireland's agreement Wednesday to take two homeless Guantanamo prisoners demonstrates that patient diplomacy between the United States and Europe is starting to play its part in shutting down the notorious U.S. prison.
Daniel Fried, the Obama administration's special envoy tasked with closing the camp, is back in Europe this week seeking to build on a European Union agreement clearing the way for any member of the 27-nation bloc to accept prisoners who could face persecution in their homelands.
While most European states remain frosty to the idea of taking Guantanamo prisoners off American hands, a growing number of nations — including Belgium, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Portugal and Spain — say they definitely or probably will take at least one of the approximately 50 prisoners.
Ireland is the second EU nation, after France, to make a firm commitment to take particular prisoners. Slovenia is the next stop on Fried's European tour.
The moves offer ammunition to critics of U.S. lawmakers who, faced with strong opposition from their home districts, have opposed any Guantanamo resettlements on American soil.
The human-rights watchdog Amnesty International says many European nations have complained about the illegality and injustice of the internments without trial in Guantanamo — and now must step up. It lauded Ireland's commitment to take two Uzbek men who would likely face torture and reimprisonment if sent back.
"While Guantanamo is the responsibility of the United States, other countries made it possible," said Colm O'Gorman, executive director of Amnesty's operations in Ireland. "They allowed people to be transferred through their territory, actively participated in illegal detentions and kidnapping or, as in Ireland's case, they allowed their territory to be used as a staging area for rendition operations.
"Those countries that played a part in the system should follow Ireland's example and help shut it down," he said.
Europe plays critical role
Some of the biggest EU players, Britain and France, say they want to restrict their intake of ex-Guantanamo prisoners to people with citizenship or residency ties. Nonetheless, France became the first EU member in May to take a foreign ex-prisoner, a 43-year-old man from its former colonial possession Algeria.
Others, like Germany and the current EU president, Sweden, say they have taken many refugees from earlier conflicts and expect the U.S. to explain why it shouldn't be the first port of call for all of Guantanamo's homeless.
Gitanjali Gutierrez, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, said members of the U.S. Congress opposing any Guantanamo resettlements in their country should be embarrassed by Europe's willingness to help.
She said those inmates "who must be transferred out of Guantanamo but don't have a place to go — they have to have humanitarian protection somewhere. That's what makes Europe critical."
Fried's contacts with other EU nations in recent weeks have produced a growing list of countries committed to taking in at least someone from the 7-year-old prison.
"We're grateful to the government of Ireland for their willingness to join our effort to close Guantanamo through this humanitarian gesture," said Sara Mangiaracina, a State Department spokeswoman in Washington.
"We are also grateful for the efforts of the European Union, which helped facilitate these discussions, and are encouraged that so many of our close friends and partners are also considering assisting us in our effort to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," she said.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi last month told Obama his country would take three prisoners, although details of any firm U.S.-Italian deal remain confidential. Spain is mulling a month-old Fried request to accept four prisoners, while Portugal — the first country to call, last December, for EU nations to welcome ex-Guantanamo inmates — says it is still weighing whether to take two or three.
Elsewhere, far-flung island nations looking to curry favor with the new U.S. administration have moved more boldly than Europe. Bermuda and Palau have offered homes to incarcerated Muslim Chinese separatists called Uighurs, a group that poses the least-threatening security profile among Guantanamo's residents.
Bermuda, a British territory, welcomed four Uighurs last month — to the fury of a political minority on the North Atlantic island. The U.S. has yet to accept Palau's offer to take its remaining 13 Uighurs, in part because the Uighurs themselves have expressed fears they might be attacked by Chinese agents on the isolated Pacific island.
In neutral Switzerland, the central government says it's willing to take prisoners — if only the powerful regional governments, called cantons, will permit it. But the Swiss are already hosting a brand-new support group run by, and for, freed prisoners called the Guantanamo Justice Center.
The group, launched Wednesday with offices in Geneva and London, intends to provide medical, psychological and professional support to more than 500 freed Guantanamo detainees trying to rebuild their lives in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The group also is exploring the possibility of suing former Bush administration officials for damages.
The treasurer of the Guantanamo Justice Center, Rachid Ouchen, said Europe inevitably would give new homes to prisoners that the United States won't take itself.
"There's no other solution," Ouchen said. "We can't leave them in Guantanamo, and we can't send them home."