• Will Europe Take the Cleared Guantnamo Prisoners?

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    As rumors continue
    to fly regarding Barack Obama’s plans to close
    the notorious “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo
    Bay, one country in the European Union, Portugal, took the opportunity
    offered last Wednesday by the 60th anniversary of the Universal
    Declaration of Human Rights
    – one of whose Articles declares,
    “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries
    asylum from persecution” – to announce that it was prepared
    to accept prisoners cleared from Guantánamo who are unable
    to be repatriated, and to urge other EU countries to do the same.

    In a letter
    to other EU leaders, Lus Amado, Portugal’s foreign minister,
    declared,

    The time has come for the European Union to step forward. 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.

    The Portuguese
    offer addresses a problem that has plagued Guantánamo for
    years, and that is, moreover, one of the major obstacles to Barack
    Obama’s promise
    to close the prison: what to do with the prisoners who have been
    cleared for release from Guantánamo after multiple military
    reviews but who cannot be freed because of international treaties
    preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they
    face the risk of torture?

    These men,
    numbering at least 60 of the remaining 255 prisoners, are from such
    as Algeria, China, Libya, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan. They are no longer
    regarded as a threat to the United States or its allies, but they
    remain in Guantánamo because, until now, only one country
    has stepped forward to give new homes to cleared prisoners. Albania
    accepted eight cleared prisoners – five
    Uighurs
    (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province)
    in May 2006, and three
    others
    (an Algerian teacher, an Egyptian cleric and a refugee
    from the former Soviet Union) in December 2006.

    A week after
    Barack Obama’s election victory, a number of human rights groups
    – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch –
    launched
    a campaign
    in Berlin aimed at persuading European governments
    to accept cleared prisoners, but until the Portuguese government
    spoke out last week, the response had been lukewarm.

    On November
    13, Amnesty International announced
    that Switzerland had refused asylum applications by three cleared
    prisoners from Algeria, China, and Libya,
    and on December 12 the Irish
    Times
    confirmed that Justice Minister Dermot Ahern had stated
    that the Irish government was “not contemplating the resettlement
    of any Guantánamo inmates,” apparently dashing the hopes
    of Uzbek refugee Oybek Jamoldinivich Jabbarov, who was sold to U.S.
    forces in Afghanistan seven years ago, that he might finally be
    released from Guantánamo.

    In addition,
    the legal-action charity Reprieve,
    whose lawyers represent around 30 Guantánamo prisoners, has
    so far failed to interest the British government in accepting the
    return of Algerian national Ahmed
    Belbacha
    , even though he lived in the UK for two years and only
    left Algeria because he was threatened by Islamist militants, and
    has also had no success in persuading the French government to accept
    Nabil
    Hadjarab
    , a former resident with family in France, and in resettling
    six
    Tunisians
    and an Egyptian
    who had all been residents in Italy. One other country, Sweden,
    which was widely perceived as sympathetic to refugees, dashed all
    hopes that it would lead the way in repatriating Guantánamo
    prisoners in June this year, when it refused asylum to Adel
    Abdul Hakim
    , one of the five Uighurs freed in Albania. Hakim
    had applied for asylum in November 2007, after securing a visa to
    visit his sister, who is part of a Uighur community in Stockholm.

    One of the
    major obstacles to European support, of course, has been the Bush
    administration’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for
    its own mistakes by working to secure the release of cleared prisoners
    into the United States. For several years, State Department officials
    have been touring the world, attempting to persuade third countries
    to accept some of these men, but without success. Their failure
    is partly because the administration refuses to concede that any
    prisoners seized in the “war on terror” are innocent men
    captured by mistake – choosing instead to refer to them as
    “No Longer Enemy Combatants” or “enemy combatants”
    who have been “approved for transfer” – but it is
    also because the administration has taken a hectoring tone with
    other countries, chastising them for failing to help, rather than
    addressing them in a conciliatory manner.

    Unfortunately,
    comments made since the Portuguese announcement by the State Department’s
    legal adviser, John Bellinger, have done nothing to suggest that
    the prevailing attitude has changed. Speaking to Reuters,
    Bellinger called Luis Amado’s letter “extraordinarily
    significant.” He revealed, “It is the first time that
    any country except Albania has privately or publicly stated that
    they are prepared to resettle Guantánamo detainees who are
    not their own nationals.” This was not strictly accurate, as
    Germany,
    Spain,
    and the UK
    have also accepted the return of legal residents, but what made
    Bellinger’s comments particularly troubling was when he added,
    “It really is the first crack in the ice of what has been European
    opposition to helping with Guantánamo in any way. For five
    or six years there has been consistent criticism but no constructive
    offers to help … Europe need to stop simply calling for its closure
    but to step up and actually help with its closure.”

    As a result
    of these unhelpful comments, it seems probable that the plight of
    Guantánamo’s refugees in limbo is unlikely to change
    until Barack Obama takes over from George W. Bush in January, when
    he will, hopefully, be able to muzzle State Department criticism
    of U.S. allies and secure cooperation as part of his honeymoon period.
    However, good will alone may not be enough to persuade other countries
    to help the new president to close Guantánamo. Speaking to
    the Washington
    Post
    , Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel for
    Human Rights Watch, suggested that the Portuguese announcement might
    be “the start of a trend,” but added that she believed
    European cooperation would hinge on a willingness by the United
    States to take cleared prisoners as well. “The new Obama administration,”
    she said, “is going to have to jump-start this by accepting
    some of the detainees.”

    In particular,
    President Obama will need to address the plight of the 17 remaining
    Uighurs in Guantánamo. With the exception of five
    Bosnian Algerians
    , whose release was ordered last month by federal
    district court Judge Richard Leon, after he was allowed to review
    the government’s evidence against the men, and ruled that the
    administration had failed to establish a case for holding them,
    the Uighurs are the only prisoners at Guantánamo who have
    been cleared of being “enemy combatants.”

    In June, when
    an appeals court was finally allowed to review the case against
    one of the men, Huzaifa
    Parhat
    , the judges demolished the government’s allegations,
    ruling that Parhat’s status as an “enemy combatant”
    was invalid, and comparing the government’s evidence to a nonsense
    poem by Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures
    in Wonderland. In the months that followed, the government abandoned
    trying to prove that any of the Uighurs were “enemy combatants,”
    and when their case reached the Washington, D.C., district court
    in October, Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled
    that their continued detention was unconstitutional, and ordered
    their release into the United States, as no other country had been
    found that would accept them.

    Unfortunately
    for the Uighurs, the government, which was still drunk on the dreams
    of unfettered executive power that had sustained it for over seven
    years, refused to accept that the Supreme Court’s momentous
    ruling
    in June, which granted the Guantánamo prisoners
    “the privilege of habeas corpus to challenge the legality of
    their detention,” also held that “a court’s power
    under the writ must include ‘authority to … issue … an order
    directing the prisoner’s release.’”

    Effectively
    arguing that the whims of the executive trumped the ruling of a
    judge, the government also attempted to resuscitate claims that
    the Uighurs were involved in militancy, even though it had been
    established without a doubt that they had only one enemy –
    the Chinese government – and even though the administration
    itself had abandoned any claims of militancy when it accepted that
    none of the men were “enemy combatants.”

    The appeals
    court judges have yet to deliver a final ruling on the Uighurs,
    but in the meantime it became apparent last week, in comments that
    John Bellinger made to the BBC,
    that he supports the government’s unprincipled and unjustifiable
    opinions, when he stated that the Uighurs were “properly detained,”
    because, although they “wanted to fight the Chinese,”
    they “were in training camps.”

    Bellinger’s
    words not only suggest, incredibly, that the administration believes
    it is justified in holding anyone as an “enemy combatant”
    who has attended any kind of military training camp (even those
    that have no connection whatsoever with al-Qaeda or the Taliban);
    they also cut off any hope that another country will be prepared
    to accept the Uighurs. For Barack Obama to succeed in closing Guantánamo,
    he will not only need to repudiate opinions like these, but will
    also need to find the courage to follow Judge Urbina’s ruling
    that holding the Uighurs is unconstitutional, and to secure their
    release to the communities in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee,
    Florida, which have already made detailed
    plans
    to welcome them. Anything less, and his mission to close
    Guantánamo and regain America’s moral standing may well
    be doomed.

    December
    17, 2008

    Andy
    Worthington is the author of
    The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in
    America’s Illegal Prison
    (published by Pluto Press).
    Visit his website.

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