Last week President Obama announced his intention to close down the notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba within a year. This may not be as simple as it seems. What's to be done with its 245 inmates? The answer may depend on the cooperation of countries in the European Union.
The EU, which has always been more or less united in its opposition to the very existence of Guantanamo Bay, suddenly appears divided on the subject.
While it still believes that the prison camp should be shut down, its member states are making no promises to take in any of the remaining prisoners. The issue could become the first big test of Europe's solidarity with the Obama administration.
Here is a Q&A on the subject.
Q. Who is still imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and why is the European Union important for the future of some of them?
A. About 245 men, some of whom will now be tried in U.S. courts on terrorism-related charges under safeguards guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and international law. Others will be repatriated to their home countries. But there are about 60 so-called "hard cases" who cannot be returned to their homes because they would face further torture or the death penalty there. These are prisoners from Algeria, China, Russia, Syria, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Obama administration wants help from the 27 countries of the European Union with some of these people, since it is apparently unwilling to grant asylum in the U.S. to any of them.
Q. What about Great Britain, arguably America's best friend in the War on Terror?
A. Britain has already repatriated nine prisoners from Guantanamo who are all U.K. citizens and another three who have U.K. residence permits. Britain says that none of these men have committed any crimes since their return, so far. Foreign Secretary David Milleband argues that Britain has already done its bit: "We have played an important role in showing that this can be done in a safe and secure way," he said Monday.
Q. So what are other European officials saying?
A. The Czech foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, [the Czech Republic holds the EU's rotating presidency at the moment] said none of the 27 member countries are "very hot" about taking prisoners from Guantanamo. "What kind of people are they?" he asked Monday. "What's their status? This can't be solved in weeks or months."
But ministers from France and Portugal both said that, having pressed the Bush administration repeatedly to close Guantanamo Bay, it would be hypocritical to turn around and refuse to cooperate when the Obama administration pledges to do exactly that. "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," said Luis Amado, foreign minister of Portugal.
Q. What's the biggest single "problem group" of detainees?
A. The biggest single problem group are 17 Muslim Chinese Uighurs, not because they are believed to be committed terrorists, but because they would almost certainly face persecution, torture or even death if they were sent home to western China. They had fled their homeland and were picked up in Pakistan in 2001, accused of taking terrorist training before they were flown to Guantanamo Bay. U.S. authorities have already declared that they are no longer considered to be "enemy combatants." Five Uighur detainees, no longer considered to be a threat, were released and resettled in Albania in May 2006.
Q. Have any former prisoners from Guantanamo posed any kind of threat since their release?
A. Yes. Said Ali al-Shihri, who did six years at Guantanamo, has resurfaced as a leader of a Yemeni branch of al Qaeda and posted a picture of himself on a militant Web site on Jan. 23, 2009. Al-Shihri, prisoner No. 372, was released in 2007 to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation. His group has been implicated in several attacks on the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sana. A second man claiming to be a former prisoner at Guantanamo also appeared on the Web site.
Saudi Arabia announced this week that it had rearrested nine Islamist militants, including former Guantanamo prisoners sent to its re-education program in Riyadh. But more than 500 former prisoners have been sent home from Guantanamo Bay or been accepted by other countries, apparently without major incident, so far.
Q. What about those Guantanamo prisoners who will have to face trial?
A. The Obama administration is working out what kind of legal process would be just and admissible. Much of the evidence against those charged would be inadmissible in civilian courts since it was obtained under duress. The military commissions carried out under the Bush administration have been suspended because they lack the legal safeguards guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and international law. The Obama administration is exploring the possibility of a kind of "hybrid" between civilian courts and military courts martial. As Obama himself said recently, "It's more difficult than I think a lot of people realize."