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Europe

Guantanamo Issue Looms Large for Europe

The European Union has put the issue of whether to accept former Guantanamo inmates at the top of its agenda. Human rights groups say Europe also needs to shoulder some of the blame for what has happened.

A Guantanamo detainee sits in the sun

Europe says it still needs more information about the detainees

When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to meet with top European officials in Brussels next week, Guantanamo is likely to be a major topic of discussion. It will come up again in mid-March, when the European Union sends a high-level delegation to Washington to find out more details about US plans to close the controversial US military detention facility in Cuba.

Yet there are new indications that European countries continue to struggle on whether or not to to provide refuge to former Guantanamo inmates.

The European Union has welcomed the decision by US President Barack Obama to close down the facility, which holds about 240 prisoners who were sent there as part of the US-led effort to combat terror. But at a meeting on Thursday, Feb. 26, the bloc stressed it simply doesn't have enough information to decide which, if any, inmates its members should take in.

"Only after we have enough information, that we will circulate to member states, only then can a decision be taken," Czech Interior Minister Ivan Langer said at talks on Guantanamo between his EU counterparts in Brussels.

Security remains major concern

A detainee peers through a hole used to allow food and other items into detainee cells

European countries are worried about potential security risks

Many European countries are deeply concerned about having people who pose a potential security risk at large in the 25-nation Schengen region, where border controls are minimal. If Germany decides to allow in Guantanamo inmates, they could theoretically travel without hindrance to neighboring France or Belgium.

At the EU meeting Thursday, leaders indicated they were likely to allow European countries to host prisoners, provided they accept security restrictions agreed on by the entire bloc. That could include limiting movement between countries or other surveillance measures.

"If they are innocent, why are they still in Guantanamo and secondly, why can't they stay in the United States?" EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot asked.

"We are not judging the United States, there is a need for information, we are not going to simply act in the middle of a fog."

US looking to allies for help

The US has said it wants to transfer about 60 of the prisoners elsewhere, saying that the government has determined they were not involved in terrorism acts. Yet the US doesn't want to send them home, as they could face the death penalty. The rest of the Guantanamo inmates could be tried in US courts.

A few European countries, including France, Italy, Portugal and Spain, have indicated they would likely accept inmates if strict conditions are met. Germany has indicated that it's willing to consider accepting inmates as well, but on a case-by-case basis after a thorough security check.

The UK has already accepted several Guantanamo inmates who were British citizens or residents at the time of their arrests.

Detainees "are not terrorists"

Members of human rights group Amnesty International wearing Guantanamo-style orange inmate outfits stage a protest

Human rights groups want to see Guantanamo closed

Human rights groups said it's important that European countries assume that not all Guantanamo detainees pose a security threat.

"It is important to step away from this misconception that the detainees are terrorists simply because they were held in Guantanamo," said Camilla Jelbart of Amnesty International, a human rights group, at a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday.

"We want to see Europe step up (its efforts) and help end the Guantanamo scandal," Jelbart said.

The inmates will be grateful to any country which would have them, said Irena Sabic of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based rights group.

Britain apologizes for renditions

Airplane taking off

EU countries allegedly participated in renditions

Zachary Katznelson, a lawyer for the pressure group Reprieve, represents about 30 Guantanamo detainees. He pointed out that European countries have a duty to help since many played "a dirty role" in the affair. Many European governments allowed US military flights transporting terror suspects to cross their airspace, a practice known as "extraordinary rendition."

And it goes beyond allowing the US to use airspace.

Britain publicly apologized for taking part in the "rendition" of suspects detained in Iraq. The apology, made by Defense Secretary John Hutton on Thursday, was the first time Britain had admitted to the practice.

Hutton confirmed that in 2004, Britain turned two Iraqi suspects over to the US. The men were then subsequently transferred to Afghanistan.

Reprieve called Hutton's admittance a "major U-turn." Yet they believe that the government was even more involved in renditions than it has admitted.

"I'm afraid this is only the tip of the renditions iceberg," Clara Gutteridge, an investigator with Reprieve, told Reuters Thursday.

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