The World from Berlin Guantanamo 'Far From Closed'
This week the US government announced plans to buy an Illinois jail and transfer detainees from the infamous Guantanamo prison in Cuba to America's Midwest. German commentators applaud the idea but question how and when the plan can actually be achieved.
Up until recently, the small American town of Thomson, Illinois, was probably best known as the "Melon Capital of the World". But this week it has a new, and potentially more controversial, claim to fame. The US government announced that it would purchase a mostly-underused maximum security prison just north of the small town, which has a regular population of around 500.
The prison, around 240 kilometers away from Chicago, would be used to house prisoners transferred from the infamous Guantanamo Bay military prison in southeast Cuba. The state built the Thomson Correctional Center in 2001 in the hopes of improving the local economy, but it has largely been underutilized due to state budget shortfalls. The prison has 1,600 cells, but currently only houses around 200 minimum security inmates. Under the Obama administration plan, the facility would be upgraded by the US military to become potentially the country's highest-security prison.
The prison would be used for containment as well as being a site for military tribunals. It remains unclear how many of the close to 210 detainees still being held at Guantanamo would be moved to the prison. US media reports suggest the number could be between 35 and 100. Around 90 of those currently held at Guantanamo have been cleared for transfer to their own, or other countries, and five have been designated for federal trials in connection with the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. American military prosecutors report that cases are being built against a further 55 prisoners.
US President Barack Obama had pledged to close the Guantanamo prison during his election campaign and one of his first moves -- on his second full day in office -- was to agree to have the facility shut down by Jan. 22, 2010. Now his administration looks unlikely to make this deadline -- and not just because of the time it will take to bring additional security measures to the prison.
Legal, Financial and Political Hurdles
Firstly, there are legal problems with holding suspected terrorists indefinitely on American soil. The Obama administration had already conceded that there were men among the Guantanamo detainees that it considered too dangerous to release but against whom evidence was tainted because it had been obtained using dubious methods, including torture. Legal challenges to imprisoning these men indefinitely may be more likely once they are on American soil.
Additionally, US law stipulates that detainees coming to America must be the subject of prosecution proceedings. The US Congress also rejected an $80 million funding request to facilitate the closing of Guantanamo, creating funding hurdles for Obama's plans.
There are also political issues to overcome. US military leaders say that what Guantanamo has come to symbolize -- American injustice in the Middle East due to widely publicized accusations of torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners -- has made fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq more difficult. Opponents of the closure, meanwhile, maintain that housing former Guantanamo detainees on US soil could increase the risk of a terrorist attack.
The devil is in the details, and German commentators on Wednesday praise Obama's intention of closing the infamous detention center, but they also agree there are plenty of hurdles yet to overcome. Because Germany had previously been asked to take prisoners from Guantanamo, German commentators also note the effect that this action might have on America's allies. Some argue the US is setting a good example that might encourage other nations to help out. Some argue, too, that the US is finally taking responsibility for its own problems.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"For the 200 men still imprisoned at Guantanamo, the planned move to the Thomson Correctional Center won't actually change very much. Because this problem -- which Obama inherited from his predecessor and which has stubbornly resisted all attempts at a solution -- has only a little to do with where the prison is located. This is especially true for the 60 prisoners that the US administration classifies as dangerous terrorists, who cannot be arraigned in a real court because the evidence against them is insufficient or was obtained during torture sessions. They will remain in an American prison indefinitely and without charges -- and this is where Obama's position barely differs from Bush's. It's just that the prison will be a cold one in Illinois rather than warm in Cuba."
"The outlook for 100 Guantanamo inmates that the Pentagon would like to release today rather than tomorrow because they do not believe they are guilty, is equally dim. Because they have nowhere else to put those people. For the foreseeable future they too will remain in prison -- either in the Caribbean or on the American mainland. And until Obama finds a solution to the problems of both of these groups, then the Guantanamo issue will also continue to exist. A change of location won't help that."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The internment camp at Guantanamo is far from closed, despite Obama's announcement that prisoners would soon be transferred to a prison in Illinois. First of all, they aren't even in the government's hands yet. Second, security at the facility is insufficient. And third, Congress must approve the transfer of each prisoner who will neither be tried before a normal court nor a military tribunal, but who will not be released either. In addition, the government only wants to move some of the prisoners to US territory; Washington is still hoping that other countries will take some of them."
"The difficulties posed by Guantanamo are not insurmountable, but they are considerable. Would the president have announced his planned closure so quickly if he had been aware of them? Maybe -- or maybe not. At the time, Obama was trying to sound the drumbeat the waiting world had been longing for."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"It is not possible to simply close Guantanamo. Efforts to get other countries to take on inmates have, for the most part, failed. And there is bitter resistance in the US -- and not just among Republicans -- against this project, which would include transferring some highly dangerous inmates to the country."
"Now Obama has decided to take a smaller, more symbolic action. A portion of the 210 Guantanamo prisoners will be moved to a prison in Thomson, Illinois. That won't happen today or tomorrow but it does signal that the president is still pursuing his goal. If other countries aren't willing to take these prisoners, then the US must be prepared to. By doing so, he is trying to prepare Americans for the inevitable -- that there is no other alternative to this imposition."
-- Cathrin Schaer