Why Italy is taking Gitmo prisoners

Although President Obama has had difficulty convincing allies to take Gitmo detainees, Italy is eager to receive these inmates so that it can further its own investigation.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
President Barack Obama meets with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in the White House, Monday in Washington. Berlusconi pledged 150 more soldiers to be deployed to Afghanistan and three Guantánamo detainees to be transferred here to Milan.

When Italy's leader, Silvio Berlusconi, met President Obama on Monday, he pledged two numbers: 150 more soldiers to be deployed to Afghanistan and three Guantánamo detainees to be transferred here to Milan.

The inmates are believed to be from North Africa. At first, Mr. Berlusconi's decision to take them spurred tough reactions from within his own government.

"I oppose taking [the prisoners] in, as long as we are not sure they will be kept behind bars," said Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, whose party, the Northern League, opposes the presence of Muslim immigrants.

The Obama administration, which has vowed to close Guantánamo by January, has recently asked European nations to take in 30 of the 140 prisoners currently held at the Cuban prison camp (to view the Monitor's previous coverage, click here).

Although some countries, including France and Albania, have agreed to host detainees from Guantánamo, many other European Union member states have refused to do so, claiming that it's the duty of the US to find a solution to a problem it created (to view a story about earlier European reactions, click here and here).

Italy's case is a bit different, however. Authorities in Milan have previously issued an extradition request for two of the three inmates.

Tunisian-born Riadh Nasri and Moez Fezzani have been investigated by the Italian police for more than a decade. They are accused of having raised funds for Al Qaeda from 1997 to 2001 in Milan.

Eight years ago the prosecutor in Milan, Elio Ramondini, issued an order to arrest them. The order was never carried out because the two had apparently already left for Afghanistan, according to a reconstruction of the events by the Il Tempo daily newspaper. The third prisoner, Abdul bin Mohammed bin Ourgy, also a Tunisian immigrant who had lived in Milan, is loosely linked to the same investigation, but no arrest order was issued in his case.

Is Italy putting itself at risk?

In the summer of 2007, the Italian judiciary found out that both Mr. Nasri and Mr. Fezzani were being held in Guantánamo and asked the US to return them to Milan, where an antiterror trial was awaiting the two. The American authorities never replied, according to press accounts here.

So is the recent announcement tantamount to a victory for Italian law officers? Maybe not, says Giampiero Giacomello, a professor of strategic studies in Bologna.

"When it comes to international terrorism, Italy has a contradictory approach: On one hand, the judiciary wants to investigate and try suspects; on the other hand, the government [as executive power] just prefers to kick them out of the country, avoiding all the troubles," he says. "Moreover, the chances of a terror attack are higher now that we've accepted [to take in] suspects who were arrested by the Americans. If they were arrested by our police it would have been easier."

Others play down the impact of the request by Italian judiciary.

"Italy will likely take other Guantánamo inmates in, whether they are linked to local investigations or not," says Andrea Margelletti, head of the Center for International Studies in Rome. "The deal is of a political nature: Let's assume Nasri and Fezzani go on trial and get cleared of all charges. Italy must have given some warranties to the Americans that the two will still be restricted in some way."

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