Casting Call in the Caribbean Germans Moving Closer to Accepting Guantanamo Detainees

Berlin has reversed course and may now be willing to accept prisoners from the Guantanamo detention facility. A delegation of German officials has visited the detention facility to interview potential candidates for resettlement, but there is still some resistance to the idea at home.

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When Mohammed Tahamuttan was asked in Guantanamo how he felt about the United States, the prisoner responded: "So what does American (sic) want with me now after four years when I have not posed any problems to them? ...And if I have said anything incriminating, it is because of the stressful psychological conditions I have endured in this prison. I don't have any affiliation or loyalty to any group that fights the US or Israel or their allies."

That was in late 2005. Since then, not much has happened in Tahamuttan's life -- except that he has languished behind bars for four more years.

Last week, the Palestinian had an opportunity to tell his story once again, but the audience this time was a group of German government officials. With outside temperatures hovering around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade, a delegation from Berlin consisting of representatives from the Interior Ministry, the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation and the Federal Office for Migration sat in one of the interrogation containers and listened to Tahamuttan and several other detainees tell their stories. The officials were there to gauge the level of risk associated with some of the prisoners it is considering bringing to Germany, in a way that was almost like a Caribbean casting session for the most desirable prisoners.

These interviews are the latest -- but presumably not the final -- act in months of ongoing secret negotiations between Berlin and Washington aimed at brokering a diplomatic deal. This spring, Germany is expected to take in some of the approximately 190 inmates still being held in the world's most notorious prison. For US President Barack Obama, who confidently declared upon assuming office in January 2009 that he would close the camp within a year, this would be a small victory. For the German government, it would be a foreign policy gesture of goodwill. And for prisoners like Mohammed Tahamuttan, it would be the end of a very protracted ordeal.

A Change in Stance

The upcoming decision has been closely coordinated between Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), the CDU's current coalition partner, and the Chancellery -- and it signals a change of course in Germany's domestic policies. Under the grand coalition government in power between 2005 and 2009, Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) and the CDU were committed to prioritizing security. Indeed, protecting Germany was seen as being more important than nurturing trans-Atlantic relations and securing the freedom of individual prisoners.

For example, when US Attorney General Eric Holder visited Berlin in April 2009 and said that "we must all make sacrifices" to close Guantanamo and appealed to Europe "to work with one of its oldest allies" to do so, de Maizière's predecessor in office, current Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), rebuffed him. Schäuble curtly questioned whether the prisoners in question would also be allowed to go on future vacations in the US, if they really had such a clean record.

August Hanning, who was state secretary in the Interior Ministry at the time, expressed Germany's skepticism on four official points. He wrote that the US needed to provide some clarification as to whether the prisoners still posed a threat, why they could not be allowed into the US, why there were no other countries that could take them in, and why Germany should be singled out as a possible recipient of the prisoners even though they had absolutely no ties to the country. The questions were phrased in such a way as to make it impossible for the Americans to answer them. And that was meant to settle the matter.

Still, during a conversation with Holder in Rome, Schäuble added an important element to Germany's official position -- along with a request for discretion. Germany's position would remain unchanged until after parliamentary elections in September 2009, Schäuble reportedly told Holder, but the issue would be revisited at some point thereafter.

Doing Things the Merkel Way

For the Americans, the new political constellation in Berlin comes at just the right moment. Since the September elections, the German government has followed a more pragmatic approach. For example, if it furthers the country's foreign policy goals, the government is willing to bring Guantanamo prisoners into the country. De Maizière -- who went from being Merkel's chief of staff in the Chancellery to the head of the Interior Ministry -- is trying to soften his predecessor's confrontational approach. He doesn't want to be seen as the country's security minister, and he has opted to only address the topics of Islamist terror and more stringent laws when absolutely necessary. In fact, he is putting reforms championed by Schäuble on ice -- and his first official act was to put Hanning out to pasture. These days, the Interior Ministry is devoting more of its time to topics such as online privacy rather than terrorism.

While still at the Chancellery, although de Maizière disapproved of the callous way in which Schäuble rebuffed the Americans, he refrained from publicly voicing his reservations. Still, it was possible to divine his stance on Guantanamo from what he told the investigative committee of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, in 2007 concerning the return of a prisoner named Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen and resident of the northern German city of Bremen. At the time, de Maizière said that "we made a decision according to which humanitarian concerns took precedence over security interests."

This new course puts the Interior Minister on the same track with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had repeatedly complained about Schäuble's actions as interior minister. Indeed, de Maizière brings something of Merkel's political style to the Interior Ministry. For her part, Merkel has assured Obama of her support if the US closes the military prison. And if it can, she said, Germany "will help." But even if that was the message Merkel wanted to send to Washington, this was officially still the area of responsibility for Schäuble and Hanning.

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