One of the first things US President Barack Obama tried to cross off his endlessly long to-do list upon moving into the White House in January 2009 was closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Despite pledging to close the camp within a year, however, little has happened since then. Congress has blocked efforts to put prisoners on trial on US soil and has shown a reluctance to imprison the terror suspects inside the country.
Still, several European countries have shown a willingness to provide homes to some of those prisoners that the US authorities would like to release. On Wednesday, Germany joined that effort with Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announcing in Berlin that Germany planned to take two prisoners. According to the German news agency dpa, one prisoner will be headed to Hamburg while the second will be placed in the state of Rhineland Palatinate.
The mini-success is a long time in coming. In spring of 2009, the US initially asked Berlin to consider taking Guantanamo inmates. Early speculation focused on a group of Uighur prisoners who, it was said, could be resettled within the Uighur community in Munich in lieu of being sent back to China.
The German government balked, however. Several more scenarios were considered as well, but little progress was made. While the decision to accept prisoners in Germany is made at the federal level, Berlin needs the cooperation of German states in the search for where to place the ex-prisoners. Little was forthcoming.
According to a story on the website of the Mainzer Allgemeine Zeitung, however, the interior minister of Rhineland Palatinate, Karl Peter Bruch, approached de Maizière with the solution announced on Wednesday.
De Maizière said on Wednesday that the US had most recently asked Germany to consider taking a total of three prisoners originally from the Palestinian Territories and Syria. Following detailed security checks, Berlin elected to take two of them. The third was rejected due to a lack of "100 percent conviction" that he didn't pose a danger. Where exactly the two prisoners will be place has not been made public; the regulation allowing their entry into Germany will go into effect in two months.
"I am not just the German Interior Minister, but I am also human and a Christian," said de Maizière in justifying his decision. He said that Germany would accept no further Guantanamo inmates. Should further requests be made, the answer "will be negative," he said.
The camp at Guantanamo was established in 2002 to hold terror suspects from around the world after Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, launched his global war on terror in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US. At its height, it contained some 780 prisoners. Now, however, there are only about 180 left. Many of those are eligible for release, but finding them a home has proven difficult.
The two prisoners Germany has now agreed to accept have been behind bars for nine years, though de Maizière insisted that neither of the two are suspected of having committed any crimes. "They want to take advantage of the chance at a new life," he said. Both of them speak Arabic.
While closing the prison had been an early priority of the Obama administration, the plan quickly became bogged down and the White House has recently sidelined such efforts, according to a recent story in the New York Times. Now, senior administration officials don't think the camp will be closed by the end of Obama's first term in 2013.