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December 23, 2008
Europe considers resettling Guantánamo detainees

Protesters demonstrated in London in 2007 demanding the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

European governement officials have begun discussions on possible relocation of Guantánamo Bay detainees — a potential gesture of goodwill towards incoming U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, since resettlement requests from the Bush administration have been denied.

Obama has pledged repeatedly to close the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo. However, some detainees may not be able to return to their home countries for fear of being tortured.

Andy Worthington is a historian and journalist based in London who writes at his blog about Europe’s willingness to consider resettling detainees.

Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners?

As rumors continue to fly regarding Barack Obama’s plans to close the notorious “War on Terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, one country in the European Union, Portugal, took the opportunity offered last Wednesday by the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — one of whose Articles declares, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” — to announce that it was prepared to accept prisoners cleared from Guantánamo who are unable to be repatriated, and to urge other EU countries to do the same.

In a letter to other EU leaders, Luís Amado, Portugal’s Foreign Minister, declared, “The time has come for the European Union to step forward. As a matter of principle and coherence, we should send a clear signal of our willingness to help the US government in that regard, namely through the resettlement of detainees. As far as the Portuguese government is concerned, we will be available to participate.”

The Portuguese offer addresses a problem that has plagued Guantánamo for years, and that is, moreover, one of the major obstacles to Barack Obama’s promise to close the prison: what to do with the prisoners who have been cleared for release from Guantánamo after multiple military reviews, but who cannot be freed because of international treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture?

These men, numbering at least 60 of the remaining 255 prisoners, are from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan. They are no longer regarded as a threat to the United States or its allies, but they remain in Guantánamo because, until now, only one country has stepped forward to give new homes to cleared prisoners. Albania accepted eight cleared prisoners — five Uighurs (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province) in May 2006, and three others (an Algerian teacher, an Egyptian cleric and a refugee from the former Soviet Union) in December 2006.

A week after Barack Obama’s election victory, a number of human rights groups — including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — launched a campaign in Berlin aimed at persuading European governments to accept cleared prisoners, but until the Portuguese government spoke out last week, the response had been lukewarm.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user casmaron under a Creative Commons license.

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