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Massachusetts town says yes to Guantánamo detainees

The small college town of Amherst, Mass., voted to accept detainees released from the Guantánamo detention camp in Cuba. Congress has previously voted that Guantánamo detainees will not be allowed to settle in the US.

By Julie MasisContributor / November 5, 2009

Guantanamo detainees cleared for release but with no country to go to, display a home-made note to visiting members of the media at Camp Iguana detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, on June 1, 2009.

Brennan Linsley/AFP/Newscom/File

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Amherst, Mass.

A college town in western Massachusetts is the first municipality in the US to say it will accept into the community detainees cleared for release from the Guantánamo detention camp – if Congress will only repeal its ban on resettling any such detainees on American soil.

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The move came Wednesday night in Amherst, Mass., on a voice vote of town meeting members. The town is also now officially on record as urging Congress to lift its ban on moving cleared detainees to the US – and has gone so far as to identify two detainees it would like to welcome to Amherst.

The town, home of Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is "an international community," says Ruth Hooke, a resident who sponsored the resolution. "We have a very large mosque here. Both of the men are Muslims so they’d be able to attend that mosque. They are young men. Presumably, they have the ability to work.”

The two detainees Amherst is eyeing are a former ballet dancer from Russia, the only non-Arab still held in Guantánamo, and a soccer player from Algeria, an accountant cleared of wrongdoing several years ago. Algerian Ahmed Belbacha remains in US custody because no country will take him and because it is unsafe for him to return to Algeria, where his attorney says he was previously threatened by an Islamic group, the GIA.

Mr. Belbacha, who celebrates his 40th birthday next week, has been held for nearly eight years. His attorney, Ahmed Ghappour, said in a phone interview he does not know how his client will celebrate his birthday. In Guantánamo, he said, the only privileges detainees get are a toothbrush, a blanket, and a mattress.

“Hopefully he can celebrate with news of this resolution passing,” Mr. Ghappour said. “I think Ahmed would love to move to Amherst.”

Ravil Mingazov, formerly a ballet dancer in the Russian army, ended up in Guantánamo because he was persecuted in the army for being a Muslim, his lawyer, Gary Thompson, said in a phone interview. After Russian authorities refused to record his newborn son’s name as Yusef (they wrote it down as Joseph), Mr. Mingazov left his wife and young son behind in Russia to seek a better life in a Muslim country. That's why he was in Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Thompson said. Mingazov subsequently fled to Pakistan during a US bombing raid, where he was captured by Americans. Mingazov no longer dances but enjoys Russian novels and poetry, Thompson said.

Amherst's resolution to take in cleared detainees – of which there are at least 60 out of the 215 held in the US camp for terrorism suspects – is a first for a US municipality, says Nancy Talanian, director of No More Guantánamos, a citizen organization founded this year to support President Obama’s plan to close the Guantánamo facility in Cuba.

That plan, which Mr. Obama announced in January upon taking office, is contentious. Though the Guantánamo prison camp is derided in the international community as a symbol of American contempt for justice and the law, at home it is seen by many as a sign of resolve to keep the nation safe. Congress in May overwhelmingly voted against approving $80 million in funding requested by the Obama administration to close the camp. In late October, as part of a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, Congress approved by wide margins a measure stating that Guantánamo detainees could be shipped to US soil only to be prosecuted for their suspected crimes, not for resettlement purposes.