EU torn over taking on Guantanamo inmates


Brussels : The notorious Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba epitomized for many Europeans the arrogance with which former president George W. Bush trampled on basic civil rights in the name of his nebulous “war on terrorism”.

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Now that Barack Obama has announced his intention of shutting it down, European Union governments are being urged to lend a hand to their beloved new US president by hosting at least some Guantanamo inmates.

As Martin Schulz, leader of the European Parliament’s Socialist Group, put it Thursday: “The Obama administration has started on the right foot by announcing the closure within a year of this outrageous detention camp … EU governments must now play their part and support President Obama’s decision by accepting inmates.”

EU foreign ministers are to talk it over during a meeting Monday in Brussels.

Guantanamo currently holds about 250 detainees, hardly any of them European. Most of the remaining prisoners come from countries with poor human rights records, such as Yemen. If sent home, many would almost certainly face torture and abuse.

A senior official in the new Obama administration, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Washington is hopeful that other governments will be more “forthcoming” toward helping deal with Guantanamo inmates, with a new US president in office.

While Europe would in all likelihood be asked to host only a few of those eligible for release, international relations experts say that a positive and unified response from the “old continent” would have significant implications.

In fact, the fate of the men in orange jumpsuits offers European leaders a first opportunity to show that they really do mean it when they profess to seek “a new era in transatlantic relations”.

Internal divisions and acrimony, on the other hand, would seriously jeopardize the European honeymoon with Obama, even before he starts asking allied governments to contribute more troops to Afghanistan.

So far, the omens don’t look good.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting in Brussels, EU governments were roughly divided into three camps: those who are willing to host Guantanamo’s lost souls; those who are categorically against it; and those who can’t make up their minds.

The first camp is desolately empty.

In December, Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado became the first to offer to take some inmates, but only as long as they were deemed harmless and liable to be persecuted in their home countries.

Since then, France, Spain and Sweden have said they might be willing to do the same, but only on a “case by case basis”.

The “absolutely not” camp features Austria and old Bush friends such as Poland, which once had a conservative government but is now ruled by the centre-left.

In December, current Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said: “Guantanamo isn’t in Poland’s centre of attention.”

“Besides, prisoners from foreign countries who speak exotic languages would be no small challenge for our prison system. Hence I wouldn’t be too eager,” he said.

Poland is currently embroiled in a major prison scandal following the suicide of a high-profile convict. The last thing Prime Minister Donald Tusk wants on his mind is more prisoners.

The government in Denmark, which like Poland’s former administration supported Bush’s unpopular war in Iraq, is under intense pressure to make amends with Obama.

Villy Sovndal, leader of the opposition Socialist People’s Party, recently told daily Politiken that Denmark had a “special responsibility” as a backer of the Bush administration’s “war on terror”.

But Danish Premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen, while claiming he personally tried to convince Bush to close Guantanamo, says he has no plans to accept any prisoners.

Perhaps even more worrying is how undecided two of Europe’s heavyweights look.

In Britain, plans by Foreign Minister David Miliband to take in Guantanamo detainees were reportedly vetoed by the Home Office on grounds of difficulties with the suspects’ immigration status, housing and benefits.

London has previously taken in British subjects who had been held in Guantanamo, but having foreign terror suspects with no links to Britain is a different matter.

In Germany, where the governing right-left coalition is set for electoral battle later this year, ministers have been contradicting each other.

While Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a social democrat, is in favour, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, a conservative, is against.

The Czech presidency of the EU, whose government has still not taken a clear position on the matter, will attempt to forge a common position during Monday’s talks in Brussels.

A group of human-rights organisations has, meanwhile, written a letter urging EU ministers to “send a common message on their willingness to help close Guantanamo and – most important – follow it up with concrete action to find homes for detainees who cannot be returned to their countries of origin”.