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Closing Guantánamo: Will Europeans take detainees?

Europeans, who have long pushed to close the controversial facility, are hesitant to take some of its inmates.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 23, 2009

Closing: Guards at Guantánamo’s Camp 6 detention center Wednesday. The war-crimes court has been suspended for review. President Obama has ordered the camp to shut within a year.

Brennan Linsley/AP

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On no single issue has Europe been more in disagreement with America than the Guantánamo detention center. The camp was a focus of anti-US protest here, synonymous with the image of a bullying world power using torture to obtain confessions from terror suspects.

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The European Union collectively called for closing "Gitmo." Now, Barack Obama, who is deeply admired in Europe, has ordered Gitmo trials to be halted, and signed an executive order Thursday to close Guantánamo within a year.

It sounds like Europe's dream scenario. Yet European states are not rushing to take detainees, a step considered essential to closing the camps.

Rather, on the eve of a Jan. 26 meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels that takes up the question, there's more temporizing than unity – and a possibility that some states that say they will take inmates considered wrongly detained may hide behind bureaucratic moves to tie such help to a collective EU agreement. Such agreement may be difficult.

In France, and also in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel was first in Europe to call for closing Guantánamo – foreign and interior ministers are now making conflicting statements over a willingness to play host.

"We know of interest from Finland, Ireland, Germany, Portugal, Britain, and Sweden," says Lotte Leicht, director of EU affairs at Human Rights Watch in Brussels. "But some of these states are also hinting that help should be spread among all states in a collective decision.

"The Europeans said for years they would assist inmates if only the Bush administration would decisively close Guantánamo," she continues. "Now we have a new reality with a new president. So to say the EU can only help if we do it together may be a bad excuse not to, rather than a real effort."

European nations are mainly looking at the 60 of the 245 detainees who have been scrutinized and cleared for release – but cannot go home to China, Algeria, Uzbekistan, Russia, Syria, Libya, and other states, due to fears of reprisal.

Albania took five Chinese Uighers in 2006. Some human rights groups have called for the Obama administration to take the remaining 15 Uighers as a show of good faith.

Portugal and non-EU member Switzerland this fall suggested they would take inmates unconditionally; some diplomats see statements this week by Spanish President José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as an affirmative sign.