Obama Administration Making Progress on Transferring Guantanamo Bay Detainees

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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Obama administration has secured commitments from nearly a dozen countries willing to accept detainees from Guantanamo Bay and is increasingly confident about its ability to transfer a large majority of the prisoners who have been cleared for release, according to U.S. and foreign officials.

Six European Union countries -- Britain, France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain -- have accepted or publicly agreed to take detainees. Four E.U. countries have privately told the administration that they are committed to resettling detainees, and five other E.U. nations are considering taking some, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

Two E.U. countries will soon send delegations to the U.S. military prison in Cuba to assess detainees held there.

The administration's progress in resettling the approximately 80 detainees cleared for release so far could ease the politics and logistics of moving terrorism suspects to American soil. Some lawmakers fiercely oppose bringing any detainees to the United States, but a substantially reduced detainee population could bolster the administration's effort to secure a prison location in this country.

Even if the administration meets its most optimistic targets for transferring prisoners to other countries, it still faces major obstacles to closing Guantanamo Bay. Of the 229 detainees held there, the cases of nearly 120 have yet to be reviewed. Officials are still deciding how to handle detainees they want to hold for a prolonged period, as well as others they want to prosecute.

Moreover, the administration is trying to determine the fate of the 98 Yemenis held at Guantanamo. Officials, wary of repatriating them to a country U.S. officials view as ill-equipped to monitor their activities, say they are negotiating with Saudi Arabia to take them.

Of the detainees cleared for release so far, 11 have been transferred home or to third countries, including Bermuda, which accepted four Chinese Uighurs. The Pacific island of Palau has agreed to resettle the 13 remaining Chinese Uighur detainees, and more than half of them are willing to go or are seriously considering the offer.

In addition, the administration has held positive talks with Australia and Georgia, and it has formally approached or is planning to hold talks with countries in South America, the Persian Gulf region, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, the administration officials said.

Congress has blocked the administration from resettling any detainees in the United States, a move that administration and some European officials feared would lead other countries, particularly in the European Union, to refuse to help close the military prison. But the issue has proved relatively unproblematic, officials said.

"Obama has a lot of political capital. Countries want to do something for him, and that allows us to say, 'This is it, this is what we want you to do,' " said a senior administration official. "This is going a lot better than we might have thought."

President Obama has promised to close Guantanamo Bay by January. To meet that goal, the administration has appointed Daniel Fried, a longtime diplomat with deep ties in Eastern Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union, to lead negotiations with other countries.

Fried was recently in Georgia, where officials expressed willingness to help. Indeed, a senior Georgian official joked in an interview that his country, which just marked the first anniversary of a war with Russia, would accept every Guantanamo detainee if the deal came with the establishment of a U.S. military base in Georgia.


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