Guantanamo closure to test EU enthusiasm for Obama

23rd January 2009, Comments 0 comments

EU foreign ministers will debate ways to help should Obama ask Europe to take in some of the 245 inmates still there seven years after the camp opened.

Brussels -- European Union nations, so impatient for US President Barack Obama to take office, face a major test of goodwill next week in their willingness to accept prisoners from Guantanamo jail.

In Brussels on Monday, EU foreign ministers will debate ways to help should Obama ask Europe to take in some of the 245 inmates still there seven years after the camp opened.

The "war on terror" prison on the US naval base in Cuba has been a blight on America's moral standing in the world and a symbol of much that went wrong in Washington after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Many of those locked up never came to trial and of those remaining, non-governmental organisations say, around 60 could face torture or persecution if they return home.

Yet Europe's moral standing has also been on trial over allegations that EU nations allowed US Central Intelligence Agency "extraordinary rendition" flights with terror suspects to stop-over on their way to Guantanamo.

"Many European countries were only too ready to assist extraordinary renditions of prisoners to Guantanamo," Greens parliamentarian Kathalijne Buitenweg said.

"They must now also assume their responsibilities in ensuring the fair and safe treatment of prisoners as they are transferred from the camp."

The camp, with its special military tribunals, has been condemned as a legal black hole that used evidence obtained by force and denied defendants their rights.

Some prisoners might have to be transferred to other countries, while others could yet be tried in US courts. Some may prove impossible to try, transfer or release.

For some nations in Europe, divided by former US president George W. Bush's war on Iraq, Guantanamo is an American problem that America alone must fix, even though they have long demanded that it be shut down.

"America created Guantanamo. It has to come up with the solution," Austrian Interior Minister Maria Fekter said last week.

Desperate to reach out to Obama, on whom hopes for renewing transatlantic ties ride, the ministers are expected to acknowledge the size of the problem and offer to help if Europe can.

In early February, senior EU officials also travel to the United States to examine the issue in detail, as the possibilities for action depend on who the Europeans might be asked to accept.

Some could be "cleared for release" inmates who have committed no crime, and who would pose no great problems, but others could be a threat.

While many countries have expressed reservations -- Portugal is the main driving force for Europe to accept prisoners, backed by France -- none has categorically ruled out lending a helping hand.

"I didn't hear any 'no'," an EU official said Thursday after the 27-nation bloc's ambassadors discussed the quandary.

But he added: "We will see if there is a general and political willingness to help with the closure."

"In any case, there first has to be a formal request from the Americans, and there hasn't been any yet," he said.

Antonio Missiroli, analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, warned that Europe might not be able to play a role at all, despite its desire to reach out to Obama.

"It's quite possible that there will be no opportunity to help," he said, and even that "transferring prisoners abroad might not be the solution."

Germany, which has sent mixed signals about its intentions, knows the legal implications well.

It attempted in 2003 to try a close friend of the leading September 11 suicide hijacker but the case was overturned due to a US refusal to allow the plot's mastermind -- Guantanamo inmate Khaled Sheikh Mohammed -- to testify.

The suspect, Mounir el Motassadeq, walked free but was finally jailed after a second lengthy trial in 2005.

Lorne Cook/AFP/Expatica

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