German politicians have been calling for the closure of the American prison at Guantanamo Bay for years. It's still home to many former terror suspects who have since been ruled innocent by American officials, and while US President Barack Obama has expressed his desire to close the prison, too, he says he can only do so if a number of the inmates can be sent to other countries, including those in Europe.
In Germany, a serious debate has been underway for over a year on whether the country should accept prisoners. In spring 2009, government officials cooled to the idea, but Chancellor Angela Merkel's new cabinet in recent weeks has returned to the issue, indicating it might lower hurdles to a deal.
Following publication of a report in SPIEGEL earlier this week about a possible plan to take in three former prisoners, however, resistance to the idea has grown within Merkel's own conservative party bloc.
"No one can be naïve enough to bring potential al-Qaida helpers into our country," Alexander Dobrindt, the general secretary of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), told SPIEGEL. "There are no innocent lambs sitting in Guantanamo."
Officials in the party's state group also expressed their opposition to the federal government's plans. "I expressly reject taking any Guantanamo prisoners into Germany," said Stefan Müller, a leading CSU official in the state. SPIEGEL has also learned that Volker Kauder, who heads the joint federal parliamentary group of the Merkel's CDU and the CSU, has made clear internally that the entire parliamentary group rejects the government's plans.
'The US Should Find a Solution'
German Interior Minister Thomas de Mazière, who re-opened the topic for Merkel's government, has also met resistance in the powerful German states, where leaders could potentially scupper any deal if their criticism grows too vocal. A common theme is that Guantanamo prisoners are America's problem. "If those affected pass the security test, then the United States should find a solution in which the people they arrested are also provided with accommodation in the US," Stephan Toscani, the interior minister of the state of Saarland and a member of Merkel's CDU, said. His colleague in Baden-Württemburg, Heribert Rech, also expressed reservations. "All security concerns must first be thoroughly addressed," he said.
Closing the prison was a central pledge made by Obama in his election campaign. Shortly after taking office over a year ago, though, he seems to have realized that the project would take longer than anticipated. It has proven difficult to find countries willing or prepared to take prisoners from the facility.
The camp was founded after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, by US President George W. Bush, to detain suspected top al-Qaida terrorists or Taliban fighters. Currently, around 190 men are still being held at Guantanamo. Close to 100 of those prisoners are expected to be sent back to their homelands, or to third countries.
Among the candidates considered for relocation to Germany are Mohammed Tahamuttan, a Palestinian man from the West Bank, who belongs to the Tablighi Jamaat, or Group of Preachers, and was arrested in Pakistan; Ahmed Mohammed al-Shurfa, a Jordanian who had traveled to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001; and Mahmoud Salim al-Ali, a Syrian man who was being treated at the end of 2001 in a Kabul hospital and was detained shortly thereafter. The US government has said it will release all three detainees.
For Merkel, the new approach to the prisoner question marks a shift in her second term. During the previous government, in which Merkel shared power with the center-left Social Democrats, the chancellor's conservative interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble of the CDU, sought any excuse to prevent Germany from accepting prisoners. Last spring his undersecretary August Hanning formulated written conditions that made it virtually impossible for the country to accept former Guantanamo inmates.
But Interior Minister de Mazière has taken the opposite approach. In recent weeks he's moved to lower the hurdles erected by Schäuble, who in the meantime has changed portfolios to become Germany's finance minister. De Mazière quickly removed troublesome candidates from Washington's wish list and then dispatched a German delegation to Guantanamo to help fill in sketchy details provided by the US government on other candidates. The delegation held talks with all three men being considered for release to Germany. The trip also worked as a signal to the US government that the German government is serious about its demand to close the prison.
The delegation returned to Berlin last Saturday, providing the government with results that were consistently positive. A decision on whether to take in the prisoners is expected prior to a summit of the German federal interior minister with state interior ministers in May.
Both Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle of the Free Democratic Party have been signalled they would be open to an agreement.
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