Nations Wary of Taking in Detainees
SYDNEY, Australia - Australia said Friday it was unlikely to agree to U.S. requests to accept detainees from the prison at Guantánamo Bay as Washington moves to close the notorious camp. Britain also signaled reluctance to take in significant numbers of former Guantánamo prisoners and said on Friday that Washington had not asked it to do so.
Australia's acting prime minister, Julia Gillard, said the Bush administration has twice approached Australia about taking prisoners from Guantánamo.
"The Bush Administration first approached Australia in early 2008 with a request to resettle a small group of detainees from Guantánamo in Australia," Gillard said Friday in a statement. "After appropriate consideration, Australia declined to allow resettlement of that small group in Australia."
Early last month, the White House again appealed to Australia and "a number of other friends and allies of the United States," she said, adding that the request had not come from President-elect Barack Obama.
Mr. Obama, due to be inaugurated Jan. 20, has pledged to shut down the camp at the U.S. military base in Cuba.
The Pentagon, in transferring three Algerian prisoners to Bosnia on Dec. 16, said some 250 inmates remain at Guantánamo . About 60 have been cleared for release. "Departure of these detainees," the Pentagon said, "is subject to ongoing discussions between the United States and other nations."
Britain, Germany and Portugal are reported to be debating whether to take in some of the detainees.
However, the British Foreign Office denied on Friday that Washington had asked Britain to take in more detainees.
"We have made it clear that we think Guantánamo Bay should be closed," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said, speaking in return for anonymity under civil service rules. "We recognize that the United States will require assistance from its allies and partners for this to happen."
However, the spokeswoman said, "we have not been asked" to take any further detainees.
So far Britain has secured the release from Guantánamo of nine British nationals and four former residents of Britain and would still seek the release of two other former residents, the spokeswoman said, indicating that the British expected other countries to take in some detainees.
"We have been pushing for our partners to follow our lead," the spokeswoman said.
The Brookings Institution, in a recent census of Guantánamo prisoners, found they came from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Russia, all the North African countries and others. The report said the group of 60 cleared detainees was "stuck there because of fears of mistreatment at the hands of their own governments."
One controversial group of long-term prisoners are 17 Chinese Uighurs. In October, a U.S. judge ordered the Uighurs to be brought to Washington and released there, although the Justice Department has appealed that order.
Ms. Gillard, the Australian deputy prime minister who is serving as the acting prime minister while Kevin Rudd is on vacation, was earlier quoted by Australian media as saying that Australia would consider resettling detainees on a case-by-case basis, subject to "rigorous assessment."
But later on Friday she said: "Notwithstanding that it is unlikely Australia would accept these detainees, given the fact that the Bush Administration has formally approached Australia, the request demands proper consideration."
Australia, a close ally of the United States, has long been part of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and Australian troops remain stationed there.
But Mr. Rudd's left-leaning Labor Party has had its differences with the Bush administration. Before coming to power in 2007, Mr. Rudd was sharply critical of Guantánamo and called repeatedly for the repatriation of two Australians held there.
The two men, David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, have since been released. Mr. Hicks, who was a convert to Islam, went to Pakistan in November 1999 with the idea of retracing the route of the fabled Silk Road on horseback.
Instead, he joined Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant Islamic group. He trained with Lashkar and Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, and he claimed to have met Osama bin Laden numerous times. After the United States invaded Afghanistan in December 2001, Mr. Hicks was captured by an anti-Taliban unit and turned over to U.S. forces.
He was sent to Guantánamo and held there for five years without a trial. In March 2007, in front of a military commission, he pleaded guilty to a single charge of providing material support to terrorism. He received a seven-year sentence, all but nine months of which was suspended, and he was allowed to serve out that stretch in Australia.
Mr. Habib, 52, a naturalized Australian who was born in Egypt, was arrested in October 2001 in Pakistan. He was released without charge and returned to Australia in 2005.
Meraiah Foley reported from Sydney, Australia, Mark McDonald from Hong Kong and Alan Cowell from London