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.

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    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.
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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.

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.”

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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.

Arguing in support of the resolution Wednesday night, select board member Gerry Weiss compared Amherst with a town in occupied France that sheltered 5,000 Jewish people during World War II. Town meeting member Carol Gray projected photos of Guantánamo detainees who she says have been wrongfully imprisoned – including an Al Jazeera cameraman and boys captured when they were 16 or 17 years old.

“People are being held for six, seven years without trials. Even the Nazis had trials,” she said. “This is an outrage.”

But the chairwoman of the select board, Stephanie O’Keeffe, had reservations about the resolution. She said she had received a phone call from a University of Massachusetts official who told her that parents of college students will be concerned for their children’s safety if detainees from Guantánamo settle in Amherst. Ms. O’Keefe also spoke to a woman who promised to strike Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts off her son’s college application list if the resolution passed.

The resolution “is being portrayed as making Amherst a safe haven for terrorists,” O’Keeffe said. “The way it is being perceived is bad for our reputation.”

Town meeting member Stanley Gawle also did not support the resolution. He said he will start carrying a gun if anyone from Guantánamo actually moves to Amherst.

“That will give me a reason to carry it,” he said. “I feel that our government is in a hurry to clear Guantánamo out, and I have reservations about how thorough the clearing process is going to be.”

Amherst, like other left-leaning college towns, is not shy about putting in its two cents' worth concerning US foreign policy and other clearly federal matters. In 2006, the town considered resolutions to urge the US government to pursue diplomacy with Iran, to immediately bring troops home from Iraq, to act to stop the genocide in Darfur, and to impeach President Bush. All were approved, and the resolution to impeach Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney passed 85 to 29.

Though more than 60 Guantánamo detainees have been cleared for release by the Pentagon, they remain in US custody because it is deemed unsafe for them to return to their home countries and no other country will accept them, says Joanne Mariner, director of the counterterrorism program at Human Rights Watch.

Amherst’s resolution is significant because Congress's unwillingness to resettle the cleared Guantánamo detainees on American soil makes it difficult for European governments to accept them, says Ms. Mariner.

“In terms of a statement of public willingness, I think it’s quite important,” she says of Amherst's resolution. “The best way to convince European countries to take more detainees would be for us to take a few ourselves.”

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See also:

Supreme Court to hear appeal of Uighurs still at Guantánamo

Obama endorses military commissions for Guantánamo detainees

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