EU urged to help end Guantanamo ’scandal’

February 26th, 2009 - 10:12 am ICT by IANS  

Brussels, Feb 26 (DPA) Sherif el-Mashad, a 32-year-old Egyptian with a knack for carpentry, moved to Italy in 1997 in search of a better life. Having obtained the necessary permits, he began working in a restaurant before setting up a small business near Lake Como.

In July 2001, two months before the Sep 11 terrorist attacks against the US, he bought a round-trip ticket to Afghanistan, where he said he intended to spend some time doing charity work.

Unable to return home after the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, el-Mashad fled to Pakistan, where he was seized by local authorities, who allegedly collected a bounty for delivering him to US forces.

Since February 2002, he has been held without charge at the infamous US prison camp at Guantanamo, Cuba - spending most of this time in solitary confinement in a windowless cell for 23 hours a day.

El-Mashad is one of about 60 Guantanamo detainees from Algeria, Egypt, China or Libya who have been identified by the Pentagon as eligible for release to another country, but no third country has been willing to take them. Many fear persecution in their country of origin and would rather be sent to Europe.

European Union interior ministers meet later Thursday to discuss whether to help US President Barack Obama close the prison by hosting these men, who say their reputations have been unfairly tainted by orange jumpsuits. Obama signed an order to close the camp within a year after taking office last month, and his administration is working out a process for dealing with the detainees.

“It is important to step away from this misconception that the detainees are terrorists simply because they were held in Guantanamo,” said Camilla Jelbart of Amnesty International, a human rights group, at a news conference in Brussels Tuesday.

“We want to see Europe step up (its efforts) and help end the Guantanamo scandal,” Jelbart said.

So far, only Portugal and Lithuania have openly said they will take in some of the detainees. A second group of countries - among them Germany, France, Spain, Ireland and Finland - are also looking into the issue.

“These people are desperate to start rebuilding their lives and would be grateful to any country that took them in,” said Irena Sabic of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based rights group.

Once in Europe, the detainees should be granted some form of humanitarian status. They should also have access to therapy, to help them overcome years of torture and humiliation, activists said.

Zachary Katznelson, a lawyer for the pressure group Reprieve, has visited Guantanamo on 10 occasions and represents about 30 of its detainees.

He argued in Brussels that the EU had a duty to help, since many of its nations had played “a dirty dirty role” in the affair.

It is a badly-kept secret, for instance, that many European governments allowed US military flights carrying terror suspects to cross their airspace - in a practice known as “extraordinary rendition”, he said.

The Czech presidency of the EU said Thursday’s discussions by interior ministers would be largely technical, with one diplomat noting that “we are still waiting for a clear statement from the American side on how many inmates we should host”.

A first opportunity to find out more from Washington could take place as soon as next week, when US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pays her first visit to Brussels for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.

Failing that, the issue will certainly be raised March 16-17 by the EU’s top justice official, Commissioner Jacques Barrot, who plans to travel to Washington with the Czech interior minister.

But despite their eagerness to please the Obama administration, EU governments are having to deal with a number of complications involved in hosting the former detainees.

For instance, most EU nations have abolished systematic passport checks on the borders with their European neighbours. This means that once in Europe, a released inmate would find it easy to move to a different EU country, unbeknown to the authorities.

Of perhaps even greater concern is the fact that these bitter men could decide to sue their hosting nation, if they had reason to believe that its government had helped the US identify him as a suspect.

Such a prospect was raised by the arrival in Britain this week of Binyam Mohamed, a 30-year-old Ethiopian national who had been held in Guantanamo since 2004.

Following his release, Mohamed’s lawyers have said they are considering suing the British government for allegedly providing intelligence material to the US.

A court case would almost certainly pile pressure on the British government to publish potentially damaging state secrets.

Such a prospect is not relished by the numerous European countries, among them el-Mashad’s adopted home of Italy, accused of having turned a blind eye to the US’s extraordinary renditions.

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