Holder close to making decision on Gitmo detainees
By Devlin Barrett
April 27, 2009
LONDON (AP) — The United States is "relatively close" to making decisions on what to do with an initial group of Guantanamo Bay detainees, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Sunday.
Holder spoke to The Associated Press during a flight to London, the first of several stops where he will visit with European leaders to discuss terrorism, drugs, and cyber-crime.
The attorney general did not say how much longer he thought it would take to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. Before officials can meet President Barack Obama's January deadline, the U.S. must first decide which detainees to put on trial and which to release to the U.S. or other countries.
Holder said the first step is to decide how many total detainees will be set free.
"We're doing these all on a rolling basis," he said. "I think we're probably relatively close to making some calls."
The attorney general has called the Guantanamo work the toughest part of his job.
After eight years in which the previous Bush administration alienated European nations over issues like the Iraq war and Guantanamo Bay, the Obama administration is trying to strengthen those ties.
"I don't think they're looking for as much of American leadership as a partnership," said Holder.
After arriving in London on Sunday night, the attorney general and his staffers took a tour of the Tower of London — home of The Bloody Tower, a historic torture site.
The tower visit is standard fare for tourists, but one loaded with extra meaning for Holder, who listened quietly to tales of torture, execution and palace intrigue.
The Obama administration is edging toward taking some Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S., most likely to Virginia. They are Chinese Muslims known as Uighurs, and their supporters say they never should have been at Guantanamo in the first place.
Republicans in Congress say Guantanamo should remain in operation and are mobilizing to fight the release of detainees into the United States.
Against that backdrop, Holder hoped to reassure skeptical Europeans without generating too much public opposition back home. After meetings in London and Prague, the attorney general is to give a speech Wednesday night in Berlin about Guantanamo.
Austria's interior minister, Maria Fekter, has insisted her country would not take any prisoners. "If the detainees are no longer dangerous, why don't they stay in the U.S.?" she asked.
Simon Koschut, an associate fellow with the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, spoke of the difficulty facing Holder in trying to find a consensus among European leaders.
"In Germany, many are asking why America isn't taking care of its own business. If you started it, you ought to finish it," Koschut said.
There are about 240 Guantanamo inmates. As many as 60, if freed, cannot go back to their homelands because they could face abuse, imprisonment or death. They are from Azerbaijan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Chad, China, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Several European nations, including Portugal and Lithuania, have said they will consider taking such detainees. Others are less interested and don't want their neighbors to accept any prisoners either, because of the ease of travel within the European Union.
In some nations are internal divisions. Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has raised the possibility his country could take detainees, arguing that the camp's closure should not fail because the prisoners have nowhere to go. But Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has said the detainees are primarily a U.S. responsibility.
Given that debate, that's all the more reason, say some, for the U.S. to release some Guantanamo prisoners in the U.S. as quickly as possible to generate good will.
Currently, there are 17 Uighurs held at Guantanamo. In recent weeks, officials reinterviewed each of them in preparation for their eventual transfer. The government has cleared them for release, but insists it will not hand them over to China because the Uighurs fear they will be tortured.
The Uighurs were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001. Uighurs are from Xinjiang, an isolated region that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and six Central Asian nations. They say they have been repressed by the Chinese government. China has said that insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement.
Any country that takes them is likely to anger Beijing.
"No one else is going to do it. No one else is going to take that heat when they didn't create the problem. So we have to do it," said Sabin Willet, a lawyer for the Uighurs. "They need to unlock the door soon."
Some Republicans, though, want to keep the doors bolted.
"There is reason to believe (the Uighurs) are not as peaceful or as nonthreatening as the administration seems to be suggesting," said New York Rep. Peter King, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.