Washington, DC – Amid a flurry of detainee releases, five members of the European Parliament visited the controversial detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to push for more humane conditions and greater cooperation to get inmates freed.
Two weeks after five detainees were released to Slovakia and Georgia and days before six were sent to Uruguay, the European parliamentarians toured Camps Five and Six, and then travelled to Washington DC to speak with representatives from the US Department of State, Justice Department, Organisation of American States (OAS), and various non-profit organisations.
|Al Jazeera correspondent visits Guantanamo|
The five-person delegation, led by France’s former justice minister Rachida Dati, also included representatives from Romania, Italy and Bulgaria.
Some former detainees have accused their American captors of torture and other mistreatment. Some inmates have gone on hunger strikes to protest their indefinite detention without trial and prison conditions.
Guantanamo authorities have been accused of strapping hunger-striking detainees into chairs and inserting tubes into their noses to force feed them.
When asked about the conditions at the camps, Dati told Al Jazeera: “We were surprised to discover that the conditions of detainees’ detention depended not on their alleged crimes, but on their behaviour while in custody.”
While a formal report won’t be issued by the delegation for several weeks, the parliamentarians had one immediate recommendation.
“We suggested that the detainees who have been approved for transfer be set in a different camp with less stringent conditions,” Dati said. “Not only for the detainees, but also to give a clear signal to third states that America and Guantanamo believe these people do not pose a threat, are not dangerous, and you can welcome them on your territory.”
Colonel Morris Davis, a retired United States Air Force attorney who previously served as the chief prosecutor of the Guantanamo military commissions, told Al Jazeera while separating detainees is logistically possible, it won’t solve a broader issue.
“Unfortunately, in most minds, even members of Congress here and government leaders in other countries, anything that has the Guantanamo label attached to it presumptively ends up in one bucket. I just don’t know how you can sanitise it. It’s like saying, ‘This is the good part of Chernobyl.'”
, they ask, ‘Well, how many have you taken?'”]
Despite public opinion in Europe being against accepting detainees, member states have accepted the majority of released prisoners who could not be repatriated, owing in part to a 2009 resolution issued by Brussels, encouraging member states to lend their support to the US.
According to a Department of Defense release, 136 men are still being held in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, housed on the US Naval base in Cuba, with many from Afghanistan and Yemen.
More than half have been cleared for release, but many cannot be repatriated because of existing volatility in their home countries. Finding suitable host countries remains a challenge, but 13 detainees have been transferred this year, and additional transfers are expected before year’s end.
An EU official – who asked to remain anonymous because he was speaking in an unofficial capacity said – “It’s difficult for the public to agree that Europe should accept the detainees when the American Congress refuses to welcome detainees on American soil.”
Davis also highlighted the reluctance of European leaders to accept Guantanamo inmates.
“We’ve pretty much begged and bribed every country we can think of to take the detainees. I think other countries have an attitude of: ‘You made this problem, why should we bail you out of the problem you created?'” Davis said.
“The other issue is – when we tell our allies we need them to bail us out and take a few [detainees], they ask, ‘Well, how many have you taken?'”
Failing to fulfil the promise
Accepting detainees on US soil has proven an unpopular concept for many members of the US Congress. This year’s US defence bill originally included a provision to allow transfers of some detainees to the United States. That provision was removed before the House of Representatives passed the bill last week.
It is expected to pass the Senate next and be signed by President Barack Obama soon after. The omission of the plan is seen as a blow to Obama’s intention to close the detention centre, which was a key promise during his 2008 campaign.
Now, with two years remaining in an Obama White House, some say he’s eager to continue pushing for the release or transfer of the remaining detainees from this site, which has caused so much tension with allies including extraordinary rendition and secret CIA prisons in other countries.
In 2009, an Italian judge convicted 23 Americans of kidnapping a Muslim cleric from a street in Milan and taking him to Egypt, where he claims he was tortured. In the summer of 2014, the European Court of Human rights found Poland guilty of human rights violations when it allowed the CIA to imprison and torture terrorism suspects in “black sites”.
|President Obama promised to close the detention centre during his 2008 presidential campaign [EPA]|
Six months after the European Parliament elections, and one month after the US midterms, the visit of the European delegates took place immediately following the resignations of US Attorney General Eric Holder, who had issued the invitation to the parliamentarians and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who had been reluctant to approve detainee transfers.
Representatives from the US State Department were unwilling to speak to Al Jazeera on record.
A US government official briefed on the visit, however, said: “A lot of our European friends have resettled detainees from Guantanamo, but the issue of public opinion in Europe did come up. One of the members did note that there’s a little more nervousness now with some of the world events, but I think there is still support within the European community.”
Part of that nervousness, Davis said, was the result of US hyperbole early on about the kind of threat posed by detainees, as a means to justify extraordinary rendition. Now, downplaying that threat in order to convince nations to accept the detainees is proving problematic.
“We painted this picture in the minds of the world – and particularly the American public – that everyone at Guantanamo is a terrorist who’s an immediate threat to American lives,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, I think the American public is still buying that narrative.”
Follow Molly McCluskey on Twitter: @MollyEMcCluskey