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Europe ambivalent about Gitmo inmates

PARIS | After years of criticizing the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and now hailing President Obama's decision to close it, Europe faces a dilemma.

Should it take in some former inmates, a move that may carry security risks as well as legal consequences? Or should Washington be left to clean up its own mess - a move unlikely to score points with the new Democratic administration?

“The Europeans have been nagging the United States to close Guantanamo for ages,” said London-based security analyst Bob Ayers. “Now the U.S. is actually thinking about doing it, these same Europeans that have been critical of the U.S. are now very reluctant to take those people into their own countries.”

The reaction has not been uniformly negative. Switzerland, Ireland, Britain, Portugal and France have signaled various levels of interest in taking in former Guantanamo inmates.

But which ones and under what conditions is unclear.

European Union foreign ministers are expected to discuss the matter at a meeting on Monday.

“On the one hand, European countries are very eager to see Guantanamo closed, and also to get off on the right foot with President Obama,” said Anthony Dworkin, a human rights and legal expert for the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

“On the other, there is a continuing reluctance to take people, because [the Europeans] didn't contribute to creating the problem and these people are going to create difficulties, either legal difficulties in letting them in or potential security hazards.”

Denmark, for example would have to change its asylum policies to take in ex-inmates, Mr. Dworkin said. Copenhagen, at any rate, is cool toward accepting ex-prisoners, as is the Netherlands.

Moreover, European countries grappling with domestic threats of extremism may be unwilling to accept more risk, even if the former inmates have been cleared of any wrongdoing.

France, for example, has been wary of French Islamists returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and sowing violence on their home turf.

Nonetheless, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner signaled Thursday that France would be willing to take former Guantanamo prisoners on “a case-by-case basis,” but he called for a coordinated European approach.

The Swiss government also said it was willing to consider “how it can contribute to the solution of the Guantanamo problem,” while Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said Mr. Obama's decision to close Guantanamo created a “new context” to discuss resettling its inmates.

Mr. Dworkin of the European Council estimates about 50 of the 250 or so detainees remaining in Guantanamo may be eligible for resettlement in Europe - those deemed to pose no threat or cases in which evidence is lacking to bring them to trial.

If they are resettled in Europe, experts say, they would essentially be given their freedom.

“The Europeans have no choice,” Mr. Ayers said. ”They can't try them because they've been convicted of no crime in their countries. So their only option is to bring them here and turn them loose.”

Some European politicians have signaled they are unwilling to shoulder Washington's burden. While Germany´s foreign minister suggested his country could take in ex-prisoners, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble appeared to rule that out.

“Creating Guantanamo was a mistake in the first place, which by the way, the administration of George W. Bush wanted to correct. ... America must deal with the consequences,” Mr. Schaeuble told a German daily.

“What I can see emerging are divisions, not only between European countries, but within countries,” Mr. Dworkin said. “At the same time, there´s also a growing desire to have a kind of European approach to the problem.”

Under the order signed by Mr. Obama Thursday, Guantanamo must be closed within a year. Experts estimate it will take months of negotiations before any deal is struck for sending ex-inmates to Europe.

“I think there will probably be a handful of European countries that will take 1,2,3 detainees. That order of magnitude,” Mr. Ayers predicted. “The majority are not going to take any.”

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