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.
He said U.S. officials would soon make formal requests to individual countries to resettle specific inmates. Though he did not provide an exact timetable, he said the requests would come in "weeks, not months."
After a three-day European tour during which he met with officials in London, Prague and Berlin, Holder said he was "pleasantly surprised" at the number of countries willing to consider taking prisoners. "We haven't received as many definite no's as I might have expected," he said.
British officials, for example, appeared to soften their position in recent days. During Holder's visit to London, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said Britain would consider taking some prisoners. "We will do our best to help," Straw said.
In February, Britain accepted one prisoner, an Ethiopian citizen who had lived in the United Kingdom. But at the time, British officials had said they would accept only one other Guantanamo inmate: Shaker Aamer, a Saudi citizen and former British resident captured in Afghanistan in January 2002. Pentagon officials have opposed releasing Aamer.
Of the 241 prisoners remaining in Guantanamo, about 100 are Yemenis, but U.S. officials are reluctant to allow them to return home because Yemen has a history of allowing al-Qaeda suspects to escape from prison. An undetermined number of other inmates will face trial in U.S. civilian courts, Holder said.
While Holder declined to say how many prisoners he hopes Europe will accept, other U.S. officials and human rights groups have put the number at about 60. Portugal, Ireland, Switzerland, Spain and Lithuania have said they are willing to resettle inmates but are not expected to take more than three or four each, according to European officials.
During a meeting with Obama this month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said his country had agreed to resettle one prisoner; U.S. officials want France to take more.
Although French officials have not publicly disclosed the identity of the prisoner in question, other European officials and human rights groups said he is Lakhdar Boumediene, an Algerian citizen who was captured by the U.S. military in Sarajevo in 2001.
Germany has sent mixed signals. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said Germany has a "responsibility" to resettle prisoners as part of an international effort to close Guantanamo. But Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has said he is opposed. Holder met with Schaeuble on Wednesday in Berlin but declined to comment on the talks.