U.S. Faces Obstacles To Freeing Detainees

Navy personnel last month at Camp Delta, part of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The photo was reviewed by U.S. military officials.
Navy personnel last month at Camp Delta, part of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The photo was reviewed by U.S. military officials. (By Brennan Linsley -- Associated Press)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

BERLIN -- British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett last week issued the latest European demand to close down the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The existence of the prison is "unacceptable" and fuels Islamic radicalism around the world, she said, echoing a recent chorus of complaints from Europe about U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Behind the scenes, however, the British government has repeatedly blocked efforts to let some prisoners leave Guantanamo and return home.

According to documents made public this month in London, officials there recently rejected a U.S. offer to transfer 10 former British residents from Guantanamo to the United Kingdom, arguing that it would be too expensive to keep them under surveillance. Britain has also staved off a legal challenge by the relatives of some prisoners who sued to require the British government to seek their release.

Other European governments, which have been equally vocal in assailing Guantanamo as a human rights liability, have also balked at accepting prisoner transfers. A Turkish citizen who was born and raised in Germany was finally permitted to return from Guantanamo in August, four years after the German government turned down a U.S. proposal to release him.

In addition, virtually every country in Europe refused to grant asylum to several Guantanamo prisoners from China who were not being sent home because of fears they could face political harassment there. The Balkan nation of Albania agreed to take in five of the Chinese in May, but only after more than 100 other nations rebuffed U.S. pleas to accept them on humanitarian grounds, State Department officials said.

"In practical terms, it's not enough to say, 'Guantanamo should be closed,' without suggesting the next sentence: What do you do with the people who are there?" John B. Bellinger III, the State Department's chief legal adviser, said during a visit to Berlin last week to meet with German counterterrorism officials.

There are about 435 prisoners from about 40 countries at Guantanamo, according to the Pentagon. Military tribunals have concluded that about one-quarter of the prisoners are not a security risk, or are otherwise eligible for release or transfer.

Ultimately, Bellinger said, U.S. officials expect 60 to 80 prisoners to face trial by military commission. The rest will be released, though many of them might face charges or other restrictions in their home countries.

But those whom the Pentagon wants to free often have nowhere to go. In many cases, their native countries don't want them or have challenged their nationalities. Also slowing the process is a U.S. policy stipulating that prisoners cannot be transferred to nations with a record of human rights violations unless there are written assurances that they won't be mistreated.

The Pentagon has already freed all but a few European citizens from Guantanamo. But U.S. officials have struggled to persuade Britain, Germany and other allies in Europe to accept prisoners who once had legal residency there, or who are effectively stateless.

"We think countries whose nationals are in Guantanamo ought to take responsibility for them," Bellinger said. "We have also, in certain cases, encouraged European governments to see if they would be eager to take detainees of other nationalities."

So far, there have been few takers.

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