Monday, March 16, 2009

EU officials hold US talks on Guantanamo inmates

EU officials hold US talks on Guantanamo inmates

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Two top EU officials opened talks here Monday on eventually taking in scores of inmates from the Guantanamo Bay military jail which the US administration aims to close in the coming months.

EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot and Czech Interior Minister Ivan Langer, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, were meeting with top officials including Attorney General Eric Holder.

Holder heads a task force charged by President Barack Obama with closing the remote jail in southern Cuba which still holds some 245 prisoners rounded up in the controversial "war on terror" launched by the previous administration.

Some 60 prisoners have already been cleared for release, and the talks here were set to focus on how the 27-nation EU bloc could welcome some of them.

A minority of EU countries -- France, Italy, Portugal and Spain -- have said they might be ready to host Guantanamo prisoners under strict conditions.

Few if any of the detainees cleared for release are EU citizens, and Brussels wants to know exactly why they cannot be hosted by the United States.

"There is a very deep wariness on the part of EU interior ministers, who are concerned about the difficulties of hosting one or another inmate. To do that, we need to know a lot about the candidates," Barrot told AFP last week.

The case of 17 Chinese Uighurs has become emblematic of the problem of rehousing the prisoners, many of whom cannot be returned to their home countries as they face repression there.

The Uighurs, members of a Muslim minority who were arrested in Afghanistan in October 2001, have been held at Guantanamo for six years, even though they were cleared in 2003 of any charges.

Washington is refusing to return them to China fearing they would be persecuted by the Chinese authorities, but no other country wants to take them in for fear of angering Beijing.

The Justice Department did not want to comment ahead of the discussions early Monday, but Barrot was due to give a press conference later in the day.

The two EU officials were also to meet with Senator Joe Lieberman, the independent who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

And on Tuesday, they will meet with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and other Obama advisors at the White House.

"We have questions and we are going to test the level of cooperation from the US authorities. We will verify all the information obtained, particularly about the exact nature of the US request" for the EU to host detainees, Barrot told AFP last week.

EU nations regularly called for the closure of the notorious jail, where "war on terror" prisoners have been held often without charge or trial, and have welcomed Obama's decision to finally shut it down.

But national laws differ widely among the EU countries and they are struggling to define a common position on how best to help. In the past, US authorities have routinely proved reluctant to hand over intelligence data.

Barrot and Langer were also to raise the issue of visa policy, as citizens from five European countries -- Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Cyprus -- are still required to obtain a visa before traveling to the United States.

Also at issue was a potential agreement with Washington on protecting personal data, which Barrot considered a "condition to any cooperation in the fight against terror and organized crime."

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