Europe Seen Willing to Take Detainees: Holder Says He's 'Pleasantly Surprised'

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 30, 2009

BERLIN, April 29 -- Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Wednesday that he was "pleasantly surprised" at the willingness of some European allies to resettle prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and that the United States was close to making formal requests for European countries to accept specific prisoners.

European leaders have praised President Obama's promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo in Cuba by January, but they have been slow to respond to his pleas for help in emptying the detention center. Since Obama took office 100 days ago, Britain has received one prisoner and France has promised to take another, but no other European country has made any firm commitments.

In a speech at the American Academy in Berlin, Holder urged European nations to help absorb the burden of closing Guantanamo by accepting prisoners deemed not to present a security threat.

"I know that Europe did not open Guantanamo and that in fact a great many on this continent opposed it," he said. "To close Guantanamo, we must all make sacrifices, and we must all be willing to make unpopular choices."

Holder said the Obama administration has cleared about 30 prisoners for release as soon as U.S. officials can find places to send them. That figure is expected to rise as Justice Department and other officials review the status of all 241 inmates at Guantanamo. Obama has put Holder in charge of closing the prison.

Although Obama has won support in Europe for his stance on Guantanamo, some European officials and civil liberties groups are pressing him to hold Bush administration officials legally accountable for the harsh treatment of terrorism suspects.

In Madrid, a Spanish investigating magistrate announced Wednesday that he has opened a wide-ranging criminal investigation into what he called "a systemic plan of torture" at Guantanamo and other places where the U.S. government held terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Judge Baltasar Garzón said his probe was based largely on complaints filed by four former prisoners at Guantanamo who were transferred to Spain. But in court papers, he also said his investigation was prompted by the release of secret U.S. legal opinions authorizing the CIA to subject terrorism suspects to waterboarding and other tactics.

Spain and some other European countries have adopted laws giving themselves authority to investigate torture, genocide and other human rights crimes anywhere in the world. Although it is rare for prosecutors to win such cases, those targeted can face arrest if they travel abroad.

Shortly before Garzón's Guantanamo probe was made public Wednesday, Holder was asked by reporters if the United States would cooperate with international efforts to investigate or prosecute Bush administration officials.

Holder did not rule it out. "Obviously, we would look at any request that would come from a court in any country and see how and whether we should comply with it," he said. "This is an administration that is determined to conduct itself by the rule of law."

Holder told reporters the United States was making progress in negotiations with European leaders over Guantanamo prisoners, but he declined to give details on how many inmates might end up in Europe or in which countries.

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