LONDON — As President-elect Barack Obama takes office Tuesday vowing to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp as soon as possible, European politicians are debating whether their countries should help him shut it down by accepting some of the remaining detainees who are living in limbo.
Europe rebuffed the Bush administration when it asked for help resettling detainees who were cleared for release but are unable to return to their home countries for fear of persecution. Eager to get off on the right foot with a new U.S. administration, however, some foreign ministers have indicated that they'd be more flexible — if their national police ministries agree and if Obama asks.
"We have definitely seen a shift since Obama's election," said Camilla Jelbart of Amnesty International in London, which has lobbied governments on the issue. Before the U.S. election, she said, the attitude in Europe was "this is the U.S.'s mess. Why should we step forward?"
Portugal took the lead last month when Foreign Minister Luis Amado agreed to accept Guantanamo detainees and urged his European colleagues to do the same. Britain, too, sounds willing to consider resettling additional detainees beyond the nine British nationals who were held at Guantanamo but never charged.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
"There is great interest in seeing Guantanamo close, because it is damaging us all," said Lord Peter Goldsmith, Britain's former attorney general who negotiated with Washington over Guantanamo detainees during Tony Blair's administration. "It is the most toxic asset for Western foreign policy," according to Goldsmith, who calls the camp "a recruiting agent" for terrorists.
The knottiest problem involves about 50 detainees at Guantanamo who are free to leave, uncharged, but are at risk of persecution or torture in their home countries. They include 17 Uighurs, a minority group from western China, as well as Yemenis, a Russian and central Asians.
While Britain's Foreign Office indicated that it favors accepting Guantanamo detainees to help close the camp, other government departments — such as justice and home affairs (which includes police) — are more cautious.
Bill Rammell, a Foreign Office official, told Parliament last week that Britain backs Obama's plan to close Guantanamo and wants to bring home two British residents who are still there but hedged on any wider commitments: "Partners of the United States will undoubtedly want to look at how we can work to ensure the closure of Guantanamo, but our overriding concern as a nation will remain the safety and security of our nation and its people," he said.
Similar mixed messages are coming from other European capitals as diplomats and their colleagues square off with domestic security officials. Eric Chevalier, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said recently that it would support taking in detainees on a case-by-case basis if they risked persecution in their home countries, but the French interior minister, Michele Allot-Marie, who oversees security issues, reportedly said she felt responsibility only for French detainees.
In Germany, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that he supported the concept of accepting former Guantanamo detainees, but Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble laid the responsibility for the detainees squarely on the United States.
In fact, the first question for Europe is whether Obama wants their help. With Guantanamo Bay on the agenda at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers scheduled for early next week, senior officials from the European Commission and the Czech republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency, hope to meet with their American counterparts as soon as Obama takes office to learn what he wants from them.
"We're still waiting," said Goldsmith, who still sits in Britain's House of Lords. "If we need to help him, if it's necessary to help him close the camp, then we should do that."
Ordinary Britons voice mixed views on how to handle Guantanamo detainees. "I feel the threat of terrorism is a bit overblown," said Charlotte Dean, the 41-year-old owner of a wine shop in south London. She criticized the camp and military tribunals as "set up to bypass all the laws" and said she wouldn't mind resettling Guantanamo detainees in England. "I'd trust our police force and security services more than others," she said.
Harry Watkins, a 45-year-old maintenance engineer, wasn't so sure. "If they're guilty, Guantanamo is a good idea," he said. "If they've got no evidence, it's not so good at all." Calling himself "no big fan of human rights," Watkins suggested that the detainees could come to Britain "provided they go into the armed forces immediately and fight with the Americans and ourselves against the enemy, which at the moment includes Afghanistan." He ruled out the suggestion that they might be eligible for asylum in Britain.
"This is a battle of ideas," Goldsmith said. He argued that the West should project "values of justice, of decency, of fairness" to make progress against extremists. "We need to practice what we preach."
(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY