European Nations Discussing Accepting Guantanamo Detainees

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

European nations have begun intensive discussions both within and among their governments on whether to resettle detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a significant overture to the incoming Obama administration, according to senior European officials and U.S. diplomats.

The willingness to consider accepting prisoners who cannot be returned to their home countries, because of fears they may be tortured there, represents a major change in attitude on the part of European governments. Repeated requests from the Bush administration that European allies accept some Guantanamo Bay detainees received only refusals.

The Bush administration "produced the problem," Karsten Voigt, coordinator of German-American cooperation at the German Foreign Ministry, said in a telephone interview. "With Obama, the difference is that he tries to solve it."

At least half a dozen countries are considering resettlement, with only Germany and Portugal acknowledging it publicly thus far.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has instructed officials to look into political, legal and logistical aspects of the matter, a ministry spokesman said yesterday. A discussion paper on the issue has been circulating among ministries in Berlin for weeks, German officials said.

European officials put out tentative feelers to Barack Obama's team to see whether it was willing to discuss the issue, but the incoming administration has rejected holding even informal talks until after the Jan. 20 inauguration, according to European and U.S. officials aware of the outreach.

"President-elect Obama has repeatedly said that he intends to close Guantanamo, and he will follow through on those commitments as president. There is one president at a time, and we intend to respect that," said Brooke Anderson, chief national security spokeswoman for the Obama transition team.

The Portuguese government pushed what had been private discussions in Europe into the open this month when Foreign Minister Luís Amado brought up the issue in a letter to his counterparts in other countries.

"The time has come for the European Union to step forward," he wrote. "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."

Amado said yesterday in a phone interview that he plans to raise the issue at a meeting of E.U. foreign ministers in late January. It will also be discussed at an E.U. General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting on Jan. 26, he added.

"I believe the new administration will have the conditions to create a new dynamic of cooperation," Amado said. He noted that when he first raised the issue of Guantanamo Bay at a meeting of E.U. foreign ministers about seven months ago, some countries resisted assisting the Bush administration.

"I assume the new administration will have someone on a plane to Europe within minutes of Obama being sworn in," said Sarah E. Mendelson, director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of a report on closing Guantanamo Bay.

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