European leaders' reluctance to take in terror suspects from Guantanamo Bay prison underlines the difficulties of US administration.
Nations not willing to take US detainees
LONDON // A plan to patriate about 60 terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay across Europe appeared in disarray last night. The proposal was put forward by Britain to enable Barack Obama to fulfil his campaign promise to shut down the controversial detention centre soon after he takes office this month. But, since the British plan became public knowledge last Thursday, European leaders have been scurrying to distance themselves from it. It has been much the same story in Australia where the acting prime minister initially expressed a willingness to take in some of the inmates, only to backtrack in the face of mounting opposition at home. At present, about 250 men remain in the facility, opened in Cuba in 2002 to house terrorism suspects from Afghanistan. When the prison is closed, up to 80 of the inmates are expected to be transferred to US prisons to await trial. Of the remainder, most will return to their countries of origin. But some countries are refusing to accept the suspects back while, in other cases, the United States and Europe do not want to send back the detainees out of concern that the men could face persecution or torture. Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, who will remain in the post when Mr Obama becomes president on Jan 20, asked his staff in mid-December to begin drawing up a plan for closing the facility. In response, Britain, which has been calling for the closing of Guantanamo Bay for some years, proposed that the 60 "stateless" inmates could be spread among the 27 member states of the European Union. So far, though, only Portugal has shown any willingness to take any of them on their release. Germany has said it might be prepared to take some after the legal and security implications have been explored. The Netherlands has firmly refused, the Poles have said they are not keen and France says it wants an EU-wide solution. "There are real divisions within Europe over this," one diplomatic source in London said yesterday. "A lot of EU countries have condemned what has been happening at Guantanamo, but when it comes to offering homes to people who might or might not have terrorist links, it is rather a different matter." It is now likely that the Europeans will try to hammer out a common approach when the EU's general affairs and external relations council meets this month. Even in Britain, the government has now made it clear that, although it is eager for other European countries to offer to re-house the detainees, the United Kingdom itself will only offer to take in Binyam Mohamed and Shaker Aamer, two former British residents still being held. "The Foreign Office is not pushing for a deal to allow other Guantanamo terror suspects into the UK," a government spokesman said. "We have long pressed the US for release of British nationals and residents. To date, we have got all British nationals back, as well as four former residents. "We have made it clear that we think Guantanamo Bay should be closed. We recognise the legal, technical and other difficulties and that the US will require assistance from allies and partners to make this happen." Opposition politicians are wary that this could mean that the government might eventually agree to take more prisoners if it would help Mr Obama out after he takes office. "The foreign secretary must explain urgently how many Guantanamo inmates would be admitted to Britain, by what criteria they would be selected, and what assurances would be given about their behaviour in the future," William Hague, the Conservative Party's shadow foreign secretary, told the BBC. However, Peter Goldsmith, who was attorney general when Tony Blair was prime minister, believes Britain should be prepared to take in more. "If it is necessary in order to close this camp, which has become a symbol of injustice, and it is part of an international scheme in which other countries play their part, then I think we ought to do so," Lord Goldsmith said. "I entirely understand the argument which says: 'Look, this is a mess which was created by the Bush administration. It was a misguided policy that has spectacularly backfired. They need to clear up the mess'. "But the fact remains, this has damaged us, too. It is damaging us at the moment because Guantanamo, instead of being a place that stops terrorism, has been a recruiting agent for terrorism. It is in our interest too to see this closed as soon as possible." The agonising in Europe has been replicated on the other side of the world. Initially, the Australian deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, said the government was minded to agree to a request from Mr Bush - not Mr Obama - that Australia allow in some of the terrorism suspects. Faced with mounting criticism, though, she "clarified" the position saying that, although Australia would consider taking detainees on a case-by-case basis, it was "unlikely" that any would actually be admitted. By yesterday, Ms Gillard's U-turn was complete when she announced that Australia has formally rejecting the US request to take in detainees. She said the decision was based on "stringent national security and immigration considerations". Many European nations are now expected to follow suit. "In the end," said the London diplomat, "you could end up with everyone agreeing that it was right to free these inmates, but leaving the inmates themselves with nowhere to go." email@example.com