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European Governments Asked to Help US Close Guantanamo

US President-elect Obama has promised to shutter Guantanamo, although how he’ll do so remains unclear. Human rights groups are holding him to his word and asking European nations for their support once the prison closes.

barbed wire at Guantanamo

The US detention center at Guantanamo Bay has been the target of global criticism

“As President, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions,” then-candidate Barack Obama told a crowd of supporters in August of 2007.

With a long campaign behind him and a few months before he enters the White House, the US president-elect will be pressed to make good on a number of campaign promises, including, as he said last year, closing the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Just how he’ll do that, however, remains uncertain. Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor and Obama legal adviser, told the Associated Press that discussions about how to handle the controversial detention center had been “theoretical” before the election. Still, Tribe admitted, the issue would quickly come into focus, as closing the prison is a top priority.

"In reality and symbolically, the idea that we have people in legal black holes is an extremely serious black mark," Tribe said. "It has to be dealt with."

Courtroom sketch of a man standing trial before several military personnel

Human-rights groups are calling for an end to the military tribunal process

As Obama and his advisers contemplate just how best to deal with a legal anomaly that has blighted the country’s reputation over the last seven years, experts say this campaign promise is not one to renege on.

"If the president-elect is serious about building bridges with allies and demonstrating core American values, it's what people are going to be looking to see," Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University told AFP news agency.

Many steps to be taken

Still, the question of how best to close the prison is not an easy one to answer. Deciding what to do with the 255 detainees still held there could prove a logistical and political nightmare. Though the number of inmates at the camp is down from the 390 counted at the end of 2006, only two have been held to account before a military tribunal -- the legal structure outlined in the Military Commissions Act that Obama said he rejects.

The current administration likewise says it only intends to charge another 80 detainees with war crimes. That leaves more than two-thirds of the prisoners as yet uncharged. At least 60 of them have already been cleared for transfer out of Guantanamo but remain there in limbo, waiting for countries willing to take them in.

Persecution of ex-detainees

Last month, ahead of the US elections, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) said it worried about the fate of Guantanamo detainees who have been cleared of all suspicion of terrorist activity but who cannot return to their home countries because they risk persecution.

“We have to remember that the US does not admit they’ve made a mistake,” said Cori Crider, a staff attorney for the London-based charity Reprieve, which offers legal counsel to 35 or so of the detainees. “They hand over the prisoner along with his file. These untested, unproven allegations follow our clients back to their home countries.”

Working with the documents in these files -- which may include coerced confessions made under duress -- security agents in each country are allowed to determine what happens to the detainee next. And depending on the country, the detainee may be subjected to further imprisonment or torture.

A detainee in a white jumpsuit sitting in the sun behind a chain-link fence

In 2007, the US Supreme Court ordered a halt to the return of a Tunisian national because of torture fears

“Closing Guantanamo shouldn’t be an excuse to transfer human rights violations elsewhere,” said Daniel Gorevan, a campaign manager with Amnesty International.

Together with other human rights NGOs, Amnesty International is calling on European governments to help prevent further human rights violations by taking in those nationals most vulnerable to persecution if returned to their home countries.

“There are at least 50 detainees that the US will not or does not want to charge but they cannot transfer them to their home countries,” said Gorevan. Nationals of China, Algeria, Tunisia, Russia and Uzbekistan were pointed out as especially at risk.

Halting Guantanamo practices

As proof of this heightened risk, Crider told the story of Abdullah bin Omar al Hadi, one of her clients who was released from Guantanamo and returned to Tunisia, despite his lawyer’s warning to the US that al Hadi would be tortured upon his return. On the day of his arrival, al Hadi was taken to the Ministry of Interior in Tunis, arrested, hit, drugged and threatened with the rape of his wife and daughter.

During his time at Guantanamo, Crider said, her client said the confession he signed was coerced, a result of beatings. It was later used by Tunisia to jail al Hadi for seven years, following a trial in which his lawyer was shouted down and threatened.

It’s practices like these, said Gorevan, that need to be taken into account before detainees are released.

“This isn’t just about closing those detention facilities but (halting) the practices that those facilities embody.”

Europe's role

Mug shot of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a suspected high ranking member of Al Qaeda

The resettlement would not include any so-called "high value" cases -- only those determined innocent

One of the ways Europe can help speed up the closure of Guantanamo, said Gorevan, is to take in those most at risk of persecution if returned to their home countries. So far, only Albania has granted asylum to three former detainees from China.

“The US gave us the Marshall Plan, they helped Berlin with the airlift. We have every reason to help the Americans and to take these people in is a step in the right direction,” said Marianne Heuwagen, Director of Human Rights Watch Germany.

Amnesty International's Gorevan cited the repatriation of Murat Kurnaz, a German-born Turk who spent four years in the camp as one relatively successful example of life-after-Guantanamo.

“European governments can offer them international protection and reintegrate them into society,” he said.

Though the process of integrating a non-native torture victim into European society would be quite different from the repatriation process, Gorevan said the large diaspora populations across Europe could help the released feel more at home.

And while the released detainees require quite a bit of support in the resettlement process, Crider said, the Denmark-based International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims has pledged its support to the initiative.

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