Slowly, gradually, US President Barack Obama is moving toward closing the Guantanamo military prison, a symbol of US excesses in the “war on terror,” but difficult hurdles still remain.
A major step was taken on Friday when France agreed to take in one of about 240 prisoners still languishing in the detention facility at the US naval base, which Obama wants to shut by next January.
On Friday, Washington formally asked its partners in the EU to step up and welcome detainees who have not been charged with any terror acts.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed Paris would help, saying the move to accept one prisoner, which could involve an Algerian detainee according to US officials, had been settled during talks in Strasbourg with Obama.
“Yes, we have spoken. Yes, we have agreed” to accept one detainee, Sarkozy told reporters ahead of a NATO summit.
If Washington is asking its allies to take inmates, it is “because that will allow the camp to be closed. So, if we are going to be coherent, we say yes,” Sarkozy said.
Rights groups have warned the US government cannot close the camp without the help of its allies.
“The Obama administration can’t solve the Guantanamo problem on its own,” Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement.
“European allies have long urged the US to close Guantanamo. Now they have a chance to help make that happen,” she said.
But laws differ widely in the 27 EU countries, which are struggling to define a common position on how best to help.
Some 800 youth and adults have passed through the camp gates since it was opened in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the US to house suspects rounded up in the “war on terror” launched by then-president George W. Bush.
Out of the 240 who remain, only about 20 have been charged and the Bush administration only planned to bring charges against between 60 to 80 of them. About 60 others have been cleared for release.
Obama has called for a thorough review of the case against each of the remaining detainees and has vowed to shut down the camp. But the fate of each individual remains uncertain.
“No decision has been taken on individual cases,” a French Foreign Ministry spokesman said, adding that the security and legal risks of hosting any detainee would be carefully evaluated.
The official also said it would be helpful if the US would take in some released detainees who can’t return to their homeland, citing the example of 17 Uighurs from western China.
They are among prisoners that risk persecution if returned home. Others are from countries such as Turkey, Uzbekistan and Libya.
But so far only France, Portugal and Spain have stepped forward to say they would be prepared to accept Guantanamo detainees.
Two defense sources said the US would welcome the Uighurs, who have been held for seven years in Guantanamo despite being cleared of all charges.
Director of National Intelligence Denis Blair has said the US will have to provide them with assistance so they can begin a new life.