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.
Although Albania agreed to accept the five Chinese prisoners -- all ethnic Uighur Muslims -- the United States is still looking for a home for 17 Uighurs who remain at Guantanamo. Several European countries with small Uighur immigrant populations declined to give the prisoners asylum after receiving pressure from the Chinese government, which wants to extradite the Uighurs and try them on terrorism charges, according to U.S. and European officials.
Among those countries is Germany, which also balked for years at allowing a German native, Murat Kurnaz, to return even though U.S. military intelligence and German law enforcement officials had largely concluded there was no information tying him to al-Qaeda or terrorist activities, U.S. and German documents show.
In 2002, U.S. officials indicated they were willing to release Kurnaz, who was born and raised in Germany but holds Turkish citizenship. But the German government barred him from returning.
The official explanation: Kurnaz had failed to renew his German residency permit while he was locked up at Guantanamo. But German diplomats acknowledged that they saw no reason to take Kurnaz back and that they considered him an American problem.
"It was a shame what happened," said one of his attorneys, Bernhard Docke. "It was a kind of excuse for being passive and just watching what was going on. If Germany had done something then, it would have kept him from having to spend another four years in Guantanamo."
European officials say the United States deserves the bulk of the blame for delaying the release of inmates who have been found not to be a threat.
In January, new German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised Kurnaz's case in visits to the White House and said her country had changed its mind. But it took until August to secure his release, largely because U.S. officials insisted he be indicted or placed under 24-hour surveillance. The Bush administration ultimately relented after Germany refused, according to German officials and Kurnaz's lawyers.
Some of the strongest resistance to helping Guantanamo inmates has come from Britain, America's closest ally on counterterrorism matters.
Despite the presence of British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a longtime special relationship between U.S. and British intelligence agencies, British officials have become increasingly blunt in their calls for the closure of Guantanamo on moral and legal grounds.
Beckett, the foreign secretary, said Thursday that Guantanamo was "unacceptable in terms of human rights" and added that it was "ineffective in terms of counterterrorism."
In an interview last month with The Washington Post, Charles Falconer, one of the highest-ranking justice officials in Britain, accused the United States of a willingness "to do things beyond the law." He has also called Guantanamo "an affront to the principles of democracy."
While all British citizens in Guantanamo were freed starting in 2004, Britain has balked at allowing former legal residents of the country to return. British officials say they are under no legal obligation to intercede on their behalf because they lack citizenship.
It's unclear exactly how many British residents remain in prison at the U.S. military base in Cuba. British officials said there are nine who were residents of the United Kingdom at one time, four of them illegally. U.S. officials say there are 10, court papers show.
According to an affidavit filed in a London court case by David F. Richmond, director general of defense and intelligence for the British Foreign Office, U.S. officials informally floated a proposal in June to see whether Britain would be willing to accept the transfer of all 10 prisoners. Court papers show that Britain nixed the idea, saying it would be too costly and difficult to meet U.S. conditions to keep the men under constant surveillance.
George Brent Mickum IV, a Washington lawyer, represents two of the British residents, Jamil el-Banna, a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship who legally moved to Britain in 1994, and Bisher al-Rawi, an Iraqi citizen who immigrated to Britain as a teenager in 1984. He said his clients would much rather return to London, even if it meant restrictions on their liberty there. But he said Britain was clearly opposed to the idea, under any circumstances.
"As far as I'm concerned, they can put them under whatever surveillance they want -- they're infinitely better off in Britain," Mickum said. "But the British have indicated to me that they are adamant. They do not want these guys back."
The British security service known as MI5 played an instrumental role in sending Banna and Rawi to Guantanamo in the first place.
The men were seized in 2002 during a business trip to West Africa, taken to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan and later shipped to Cuba. Documents show that British agents tipped off the CIA to the men's whereabouts after they had refused to work as informants for MI5 in London.
Researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.