On Monday, the European Union and the United States made a joint statement in Luxembourg “on the Closure of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility and Future Counterterrorism Operations, based on Shared Values, International Law, and Respect for the Rule of Law and Human Rights” (PDF), which, as the Guardian put it, “cleared the last hurdles for up to 50 Guantánamo detainees to be accommodated in EU countries.”
Expressing their desire to “help the US turn the page,” EU member states welcomed not only “the determination” of the US to close Guantánamo, but also “other steps taken, including the intensive review of its detention, transfer, trial and interrogation policies in the fight against terrorism and increased transparency about past practices in regard to these policies, as well as the elimination of secret detention facilities,” which was, of course, a clear repudiation of the Bush administration’s policies.
The fine print established that, although the EU “reaffirm[s] that the primary responsibility for closing Guantánamo and finding residence for the former detainees rests with the United States,” EU countries are prepared, on a case-by-case basis, at the discretion of each individual country, and, possibly, with financial support from the US, to assist the Obama administration in finding “residence” for cleared prisoners “who the United States has determined it will not prosecute, and who for compelling reasons cannot return to their countries of origin, but have expressed the wish to be received by one or the other EU Member State[s] or Schengen associated country.”
It was clear from the statement that security remains a problem for some countries, because of free movement within the EU, and it was, therefore, made clear that “cooperation among member states is necessary, whatever the individual decisions of the Member States on the subject matter might be,” and that an EU meeting on June 4 had addressed these issues and had established a “mechanism … on the exchange of information concerning Guantánamo former detainees.”
Despite this, problems may still lie ahead. The statement specifically asks for “all available (confidential and other) intelligence and information” about the prisoners “in order to allow [countries] to take an informed decision and conduct a proper security assessment.” This appears to have been inspired in particular by the German government, which was recently asked to take nine of the Uighurs at Guantánamo, but balked at accepting them, even though they have been cleared of any involvement in terrorism or militancy by the Bush administration, by the US military and by US courts, and the Germans are still apparently deliberating about a further request to take two other prisoners, a Tunisian and a Syrian.
In the last few days, I have been receiving calls from a number of journalists in various European countries asking me for information about the cleared prisoners. I have explained that the identities of these men are not clear, as President Obama initiated a new inter-departmental review of the prisoners’ cases when he took office, which did not necessarily involve accepting the findings of the Bush administration’s military review boards at Guantánamo, which had cleared 61 prisoners for release, as I reported in an article in February, “Guantánamo’s refugees.”
Nevertheless, this article remains a good starting point for those who want to learn something about the men who have been cleared for release — and especially, I hope, how and why men who had no connection to terrorism were seized and taken to Guantánamo.
On Tuesday, as a result of my research into the stories of these prisoners, I was invited to talk about some of these men — and their backgrounds — on “Europe Today,” on the BBC World Service, after Silvio Berlusconi, during a US visit, pledged to accept three cleared prisoners (other countries who have previously put themselves forward are Belgium, France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the UK). The discussion takes up the first ten minutes of the show, and is available on the BBC iPlayer, although it is only available until June 20.
I chose to speak about Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who lived in the UK, where he had fled after being threatened by Islamists for taking a job with a government-owned oil company, Shaker Aamer (who was sadly cut from the show becasue of time constraints), and Adel al-Hakeemy, a Tunisian who had worked for many years as a chef in Bologna, but I could have chosen many other stories, as the main thing that nervous European governments need to bear in mind, as I have spent the last three years explaining, is that very few of the 779 prisoners held in Guantánamo throughout its long and ignoble history ever had any connection whatsoever with al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group. As I put it in an article last month,
Far from being a prison for “the worst of the worst,” Guantánamo was, in fact, nothing more than a chaotic assemblage of largely random prisoners, mostly bought from the US military’s opportunistic allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or from villagers and townspeople desperate for the bounty payments for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects,” averaging $5,000 a head, which were advertised on leaflets dropped from planes.
Moreover, these randomly seized prisoners were never adequately screened to determine whether they should ever have been held, and their continued detention has been justified on the basis of information, masquerading as evidence, that was largely extracted through the interrogations of other prisoners, who were often either coerced or bribed. Given that the prison was established to stand outside the law, and to hold them forever, it should be clear that those who succeeded in convincing the Bush administration that they should be released have already had to overcome hurdles that no ordinary prisoner would ever have to endure, and that, as a result, raising alerts about the possible dangers they pose is much more suited to the old world of Dick Cheney than it is to the “new page” that the EU is turning in accommodating President Obama and his request for assistance in closing a prison based on torture, lies and paranoia.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.
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