By Craig Whitlock and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 29, 2009
BERLIN, May 28 -- The Obama administration's push to resettle at least 50 Guantanamo Bay prisoners in Europe is meeting fresh resistance as European officials demand that the United States first give asylum to some inmates before they will do the same.
Rising opposition in the U.S. Congress to allowing Guantanamo prisoners on American soil has not gone over well in Europe. Officials from countries that previously indicated they were willing to accept inmates now say it may be politically impossible for them to do so if the United States does not reciprocate.
"If the U.S. refuses to take these people, why should we?" said Thomas Silberhorn, a member of the German Parliament from Bavaria, where the White House wants to relocate nine Chinese Uighur prisoners. "If all 50 states in America say, 'Sorry, we can't take them,' this is not very convincing."
Interior ministers from the 27-member European Union are pressing the Obama administration to agree to a joint declaration that would commit the United States to accept some prisoners, something Congress has been highly reluctant to do.
European officials involved in the negotiations said Obama administration officials had assured them that some detainees who are not considered security threats would be released in the United States, while others would be prosecuted in U.S. courts.
But now European governments are seeking fresh assurances that the White House will be able to follow through on its pledge, given recent opposition by Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress to permitting any prisoners on U.S. territory.
Congress has refused to authorize $80 million Obama wants to pay for closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until he reveals exactly what he plans to do with the 240 prisoners held there.
In a speech last week, Obama said that some inmates would be tried in federal courts or military commissions and that others would probably be held in preventive detention, although he did not say where. U.S. courts have ordered that 21, including the Uighurs, be released, and there are 50 more "who we have determined can be safely transferred to another country," Obama said.
Several European countries, including Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Portugal, said they were willing to give a new home to Guantanamo inmates after Obama announced in January that he would empty the prison within a year. Guantanamo has been a human rights sore point in Europe since President George W. Bush opened it in 2002.
Agreements to resettle individual prisoners, however, have been slow in coming. Britain and France have each accepted one Guantanamo prisoner since Obama took office, but no other arrangements have come to fruition.German Assent Evaporated
Perhaps the thorniest case so far has involved a group of prisoners that many U.S. and European officials had thought would be the easiest to resolve: the Uighurs, members of a Muslim ethnic group from China.
There are 17 Uighurs at Guantanamo; all were captured in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A U.S. federal judge ruled in October that none poses a security threat and that they should be freed. But American officials have struggled to find a place for them.
Attorneys for the 17 men have said they cannot be sent back to China because, as members of a persecuted minority group, they would face imprisonment or even death. Other countries have been reluctant to accept them for fear of antagonizing the Chinese government, which considers them terrorists.
Recently, U.S. officials thought they had found a solution. Leaders in Germany, which hosts the largest expatriate community of Uighurs in Europe, indicated a willingness to resettle some of the men.
After weeks of informal discussions, the State Department delivered a formal request last month to the German government to accept nine Uighurs. The response was positive. German diplomats supported the idea. Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, a leading opponent of accepting Guantanamo prisoners, softened his position in a meeting with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., saying he would consider helping under certain conditions.
In Munich, the capital of the southern state of Bavaria, the City Council passed a resolution saying it would be glad to welcome the Uighurs. Members of Munich's Uighur community, about 500 immigrants, promised to line up jobs and homes for the former detainees.
"It is important to send the signal that we should do what we can to help close Guantanamo," Friedrich Graffe, director of social services for the city of Munich, said in an interview. "If the Uighurs should come to Munich, we would take care of them."
Since then, however, negotiations have stumbled. German officials complained that the Obama administration has not shared enough details from the Uighurs' files to allow an independent assessment of whether they pose a security risk. More trouble emerged when Washington stipulated that the Uighurs would be barred from traveling to the United States.
"If the U.S. says they should come here, but they cannot travel to the U.S., we would have to ask why not?" said a German Interior Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. "Does that mean they are dangerous?"Protest in Northern Virginia
The Obama administration is facing similar problems at home.
In a bipartisan eruption, lawmakers across the country have protested any relocation of detainees in their states. One of the most adamant has been Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R), in whose Northern Virginia district the administration hopes to resettle several Uighurs.
When constituents with inside information alerted him May 1 that a plane was being readied for the "imminent" transfer of two to five Uighurs, Wolf shot off a letter to Obama asking the president to "declassify all intelligence regarding their capture, detention, and your administration's assessment of the threat they may pose to Americans, prior to any decision to release them." Obama did not respond, but Wolf's chief of staff received a call from the White House accusing him of playing politics with the issue, Wolf said.
Earlier, Wolf added, the Justice Department had given him an informal promise not to carry out any resettlements without congressional consultation in exchange for his agreement not to grill Holder on the Uighurs during the attorney general's House testimony April 23.
Wolf's letter to Obama was followed by one to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on May 4, and another to Holder on May 13. The Uighurs, Wolf told Holder, are "trained terrorists" and members of an al-Qaeda affiliate, allegations that the military and federal courts had dismissed.
Although neither Napolitano nor Holder responded to his letters, Wolf said, the Justice Department set up a classified meeting with him last week. The session ended abruptly and unsatisfactorily, he said, when Ronald H. Weich, the assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, was unable or unwilling to fully answer Wolf's questions.
"My sense is that Holder just wants to release someone so he can go back and say [to the Europeans], 'Well, we've taken one or two or three,' " Wolf said yesterday.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined to respond directly to Wolf's assertions, saying in an e-mail that the department has briefed Wolf and other members of Congress "on the detainee review process. . . . We will continue to do so as we work to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay."
A White House aide noted that "a federal judge ordered the release of the Uighurs during the previous administration, and we've been working hard to implement that order, bearing in mind that we will not release any detainee who would endanger the security of the American people."
"Contacts with the congressman's office," the aide said of Wolf, "were the result of an effort to bring him into the consultative process" of determining where the detainees should go.
Some Germans Digging In
The hitches that have developed in admitting some of the Uighurs to the United States have, in turn, severely hampered efforts to send the nine other Uighurs to Germany.
"It's very clear that the [Obama] administration has to bring some of them to the U.S.," said Susan Baker Manning, a Washington lawyer who represents two Uighurs seeking to go to Munich.
"Our European allies have made it quite clear that they expect our help and participation in solving the problem of Guantanamo, which we created," she said.
Meantime, some influential German authorities are digging in their heels. Joachim Herrmann, Bavaria's interior minister, said in an interview that he would not completely rule out accepting some Uighurs. But he said the Obama administration needed to do a much better job of allaying German concerns.
Herrmann also said he was not convinced by Washington's insistence that the Uighurs do not pose a threat.
"These are people who participated in terror camps, who had military training, who are radicalized, who do not follow democratic principles, who follow radical goals," he said. "And we do not want to accept such people."
Siegfried Benker, a Munich City Council member and local Green Party leader, said officials such as Herrmann are trying to stir fears by portraying the Uighurs as sinister.
"With the Uighurs, there is no proof at all that they were guilty. They have been cleared from being enemy combatants, and the U.S. no longer sees them as being suspicious," said Benker, whose party endorsed the resolution welcoming the Uighurs to Munich. "But the opponents act like anyone who comes from Guantanamo has to be a terrorist. They do not allow for innocence. Apparently they hope for votes."
DeYoung reported from Washington. Special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Munich contributed to this report.