By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008
Portugal's foreign minister has called for European countries to accept detainees released from the Guantanamo Bay detention center, a move that U.S. officials and human rights advocates regard as a possible harbinger of a new willingness by Europe to assist in closing the controversial facility.
"The time has come for the European Union to step forward," Luís Amado told other E.U. countries in a letter made public yesterday. "As a matter of principle and coherence, we should send a clear signal of our willingness to help the U.S. Government in that regard, namely through the resettlement of detainees. As far as the Portuguese Government is concerned, we will be available to participate."
The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where roughly 250 detainees are held, has long been a symbol of what European publics consider U.S. lawlessness. But while European officials have criticized the United States and called for the center's closure, they have been unwilling to take concrete steps to make that easier.
According to U.S. officials, there are 60 or so detainees who have been cleared for release but have no place to go, in part because they fear persecution or torture if they return to their home nations.
The Portuguese letter is "highly significant," said State Department legal adviser John B. Bellinger III, saying it is the first time an E.U. country has publicly indicated a willingness to accept detainees. "That's a quite open challenge to the rest of Europe."
The incoming administration of Barack Obama, who has vowed to close Guantanamo, may be one factor relaxing European attitudes about helping the U.S. government close the facility. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also pressed European governments to help, with a particular focus on Portugal, which held the rotating presidency of the European Union last year.
Amado's letter cited "the more constructive attitude displayed by the U.S. Department of State" in the debate over Guantanamo.
Jennifer Daskal, a senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch, said the Portuguese announcement could be "the start of a trend," but she predicted that European willingness to accept significant numbers of Guantanamo detainees hinges on U.S. willingness to do the same. "The new Obama administration is going to have to jump-start this by accepting some of the detainees," Daskal said.