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US Towns Open Doors to Cleared Gitmo Prisoners

by William Fisher

NEW YORK - As Congress stiffens its resistance to moving any Guantánamo prisoners anywhere near the continental U.S., some communities are putting out the welcome mat.

"It's important for the world to know that there are many community groups who take seriously their responsibility to promote justice for their fellow human beings," Talanian told IPS. (AFP/Pool/File/Michelle Shephard) Through an organization called No More Guantánamos, two New England towns have voted to welcome detainees who have been cleared for release, and similar actions are being planned in other locations.

In late April, voters at a town meeting in Leverett, Massachusetts overwhelmingly approved a resolution welcoming "one or two" cleared Guantánamo Bay detainees to the community once Congress lifts its current ban.

Leverett thus became the second U.S. municipality to make it known that it would welcome Guantánamo detainees. Its resolution is identical to one approved in November 2009 by town meeting members in nearby Amherst, Massachusetts.

Leverett is a town in western Massachusetts with a population is 1,663, according to the 2000 census. It is part of the Springfield metro area.

Amherst is a much larger town, with a population of more than 35,000. It is home to Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It was also the home of famed U.S. poet Emily Dickinson, who was known as "The Belle of Amherst".

Nancy Talanian, executive director of No More Guantánamos, told IPS that there was very little local opposition in either of the towns. "The main opposition that Amherst town officials experienced came from outside the community, from right-wing talk radio and the blogosphere," she said.

Congress has left no doubt that it regards the movement of any Guantánamo prisoner to the continental U.S. as one of the most highly charged third rails in politics. It has imposed strict rules on the Barack Obama administration governing bringing Guantánamo prisoners to the U.S. even for trial.

And it has effectively stalled the administration's plans to purchase a prison in Illinois to house prisoners now in custody at Guantánamo.

Congress reiterated that position last week when the House Armed Services Committee unanimously approved a defense bill for 2011 that bans spending money to build or modify any facility inside the United States to house Guantánamo detainees.

Guantánamo detainees have been largely successful in appealing their detentions to federal district court, which has ordered 75 percent of appellants to be released. But the U.S. military continues to hold them because an appeals court has ruled that releasing them into the U.S. involves immigration law, over which federal judges have no jurisdiction.

At the same time, the U.S. continues to negotiate with other countries to accept prisoners it has cleared for release.

With Guantánamo's promised closing effectively stalled by Congress, why is No More Guantánamos actively promoting municipal resolutions offering homes?

"It's important for the world to know that there are many community groups who take seriously their responsibility to promote justice for their fellow human beings," Talanian told IPS. "For years, we were told that all the prisoners held at Guantánamo were the worst of the worst. Now we know that was not true."

She added, "The Bush and Obama administrations and federal courts have already freed nearly 600 men who passed through that facility. Many of the 100 remaining men whom the government has cleared for transfer have been held for more than eight years without being charged with any crime. We are prepared to accept our government's verdict that these men pose no threat to the United States."

"Without cooperation from U.S. communities and Congress, the long-awaited plan to close Guantánamo may not succeed," she said.

She noted that Congress's "not-in-our-backyard" ban stands in the way of encouraging international cooperation in closing the prison.

"Guantánamo detainees who cannot safely return home are really no different than other refugees whom western Massachusetts communities have welcomed in the past," she said.

No More Guantánamos has additional chapters in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; New York City; Denver, Colorado; and Tallahassee, Florida, and other chapters currently forming, she added.

Talanian founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC), a grassroots not-profit advocating for the rule of law, and was its executive director through 2008.

No More Guantánamos describes itself as "a coalition of concerned U.S. residents, communities, organizations, and attorneys who are working together to ensure justice for the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and other offshore prison sites maintained by the CIA and the Pentagon around the world."

Its mission is "to ensure basic human rights for all prisoners, including the right to be either charged for crimes and tried or released, in accordance with international law, and not held indefinitely, and to find homes for prisoners who cannot return home."

The organization was formed soon after President Obama signed an executive order to close Guantánamo Bay prison by Jan. 22, 2010.

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