The German government is split over whether to accept Guantanamo detainees should the controversial detention camp be closed. Interior Minister Schäuble has rejected a proposal by Foreign Minister Steinmeier to take in former inmates, saying they are America's problem.
US President-elect Barack Obama is committed to closing the controversial detention center at Guantanamo Bay. But, as he readily admits, shutting down the facility will be a challenge. One major problem is what to do with the detainees, some of whom can expect to face torture or execution if returned to their countries of origin.
Speaking at a meeting of EU interior ministers in Prague Thursday, Schäuble questioned why Germany should take in non-German detainees. "The United States holds responsibility for the people who have spent years in Guantanamo," he said.
The interior minister, who belongs to Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, said that Germany would naturally be prepared to take Guantanamo detainees who were German citizens or who had grown up in Germany. However he said that, as far as he knew, none of the around 250 people currently being held in Guantanamo fell into either of those categories.
Schäuble said that the remaining Guantanamo detainees comprised "a number that is not overwhelming in size and the US is not a small country." At the same time, he stressed: "If we have a responsibility for someone who is either a German citizen or grew up in Germany, then we'll act on it." He said he and Chancellor Merkel had proved that in the case of Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen who grew up in the German city of Bremen and was allowed to return to Germany in 2006 after spending four and a half years in Guantanamo.
In a sideswipe apparently aimed at Steinmeier, Schäuble added: "Ms. Merkel and I do not need to be told what to do in this regard by certain individuals." Steinmeier, who was chief of staff to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder when Kurnaz was abducted, has been accused of hindering an early release of Kurnaz by rejecting an offer by the US to let Kurnaz go. Steinmeier has denied that there was any such offer from the US before 2006. The Kurnaz case has proved to be a thorn in the side of Steinmeier, who is the center-left Social Democratic Party's candidate for chancellor in Germany's federal elections, to be held in September 2009.
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European Commissioner for Justice Jacques Barrot said at the meeting Thursday that the bloc has not yet received a formal request from the US to accept Guantanamo detainees, should the camp be closed. He said he would travel to Washington together with Czech Interior Minister Ivan Langer to discuss the issue with the new administration.
At the EU meeting, interior ministers from France and Austria also expressed their opposition to taking former detainees. French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said that she would only feel responsible for Guantanamo inmates who are French citizens: "As far as I know, we have no citizens in Guantanamo any more." Her Austrian counterpart Maria Fekter said that Austria was not prepared to take any detainees. "We see this as a problem for the Americans," she said.
Europe is split over the issue. Portugal and Switzerland have already said they would be open to taking in detainees, while Albania and Sweden have acknowledged they have already taken in a few former inmates.
EU foreign ministers will discuss the issue of accepting detainees at a meeting in Brussels on Jan. 26. However Schäuble said Thursday that responsibility for the issue lies clearly with national and federal state-level interior ministers. The French Foreign Ministry also appears to be at odds with the country's Interior Ministry, saying that it would be "open" to taking Guantanamo detainees.
The Guantanamo Bay camp was set up after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 to hold so-called "enemy combatants" accused of links to al-Qaida or Afghanistan's Taliban. Although most of the remaining 250 detainees come from Yemen, the camp also includes inmates from Azerbaijan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Chad, China and Saudi Arabia. Earlier this week, senior advisers to US President-elect Barack Obama confirmed that he will sign an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within days of taking office.Der Spiegel