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Guantanamo inmates pose challenge for Europe

The decision to shut down the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay was a dream come true for many Europeans, including anti-terrorism officials who have largely condemned the facility. But European officials acknowledge that dismantling Guantanamo could be something of a nightmare.

The foreign ministers of the European Union recently pledged to help President Obama keep his promise to shutter the prison on the coast of Cuba in a year. They offered to provide refuge for up to 60 inmates who could face persecution in their native lands. Spain, France, Italy and Portugal are among the nations offering to accept former detainees; Germany, Britain and others are reluctant.

Now Europe must confront thorny questions: Which detainees will go where? Should some be prosecuted or imprisoned, if that is even possible? Who pays for medical care, housing, surveillance? Who gets the blame if something awful happens?

The questions challenge a select fraternity of European investigators, diplomats and spies who know Guantanamo firsthand from visits to interrogate or repatriate detainees. These officials have had a conflicted relationship with the prison: They think its creation was a mistake that worsened radicalization in their countries, but they acknowledge that intelligence from Guantanamo helped them disrupt networks and detect threats.

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Now they will play a central role in assessing the risks in Western Europe, where the lack of internal borders makes security concerns regional.

Some of the inmates pose little threat, officials said in recent interviews. But they described others as potentially dangerous veteran militants. And they cited another legacy of Guantanamo: wrongfully accused men whose imprisonment made them radicals.

“What happened in their heads during the past years?” said Alain Grignard, a Belgian federal police commander who has made half a dozen visits to Guantanamo. “They could be bitter because of the treatment. Or there are those who . . . will feel great pressure because of their aura as a Guantanamo veteran. Other extremists will want them to issue fatwas, discuss their experiences -- they will look to them as leaders.”

Because of such fears, officials predict that the 27-nation European Union might look for alternative refuges for some Guantanamo veterans. They cite an agreement in which Albania accepted five Chinese Uighur Muslims who were released without charges in 2006.

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Western governments will have to wrestle with complex issues of international justice and human rights as they decide the fate of the prison’s 250 inmates, said Baltasar Garzon, a high-profile Spanish investigative magistrate and vocal critic of Guantanamo.

“I propose an international commission of distinguished jurists from the United States, Europe, affected countries,” Garzon said. “They could determine, case by case, whether there are grounds for prosecution or not. They could make recommendations for the distribution of those who would not be charged. It could be nonbinding, but it would have the weight of objectivity and expertise.”

Others envision an international court comparable to tribunals that have judged war crimes suspects from Africa and the Balkans.

Former prisoners with EU citizenship or residency who have been repatriated include 13 sent to Britain, seven to France and two to Spain. Some were prosecuted, but most are free and have not caused problems, officials said.

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Nonetheless, the recent revelation that a Guantanamo “graduate” became a chief of Al Qaeda in Yemen, appearing in a defiant video, reverberated in law enforcement circles. Guantanamo’s harsh conditions and sense of hopelessness have generated rage and radicalization, anti-terrorism officials said.

“During my first visit, the prisoners I dealt with spoke with an individual voice,” a European anti-terrorism official recalled. “But on the second visit, they were already speaking with a collective voice. You could see the dominance of the hard-core ideologues take effect. It’s a classic process of group psychology in places like that.”

The Europeans expect Washington to request refuge for inmates from countries including China, Uzbekistan, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria that have dismal human rights records. The inmates have been cleared for release but are not being sent home because of the probability that they would be persecuted, jailed and tortured.

Anti-terrorism officials generally regard the 17 Chinese Uighurs and four Uzbeks as unlikely to get involved in anti-Western violence if they are given refuge in Europe. Human rights advocates cite the case of a 31-year-old sheep farmer from Uzbekistan.

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Oybek Jabbarov was a refugee with his pregnant wife and son in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led military operation in late 2001. Anti-Taliban fighters turned him over to U.S. troops, who were paying bounties for Al Qaeda militants. He denied being an extremist.

In February 2007, U.S. officials cleared the farmer for release, but he remained in custody because there was nowhere to send him. In a handwritten letter in October, he appealed to the outside world. “I did nothing wrong and I am innocent,” he wrote. “But I do not blame the American people for their government’s mistake. Even though I am still here in this prison, I have no hate in my heart.”

In contrast, European investigators see other inmates as potentially dangerous militants even if prosecution is difficult because much of the alleged activity took place outside Europe. They cite several Tunisians linked to a militant group that assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban warlord, two days before the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Some of them are dangerous and hyper-motivated,” said a senior Italian anti-terrorism official. “They are veterans of Afghanistan. It would be difficult to charge them, but they would have to be kept under surveillance.”

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Two Tunisians who raise concern among European investigators lived in Italy before their arrests: Hisham Sliti, who a U.S. judge ruled in December could not be cleared for release because of evidence that he was an enemy combatant, and Adel Hakimi.

Hakimi, 43, fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, European investigators say, then became part of a group of Tunisians who joined Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In 2002, an Al Qaeda ideologue later convicted in a Belgian court told Belgian police that Hakimi was an operative who helped recruits cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan and reach the militants’ base in Jalalabad, according to a Belgian police report.

Hakimi’s lawyers argue that U.S. allegations against him are false and based on testimony extracted through torture. They describe him as a peaceful, Westernized resident of Italy who has never seen his 6-year-old daughter. But European investigators point out that Hakimi fathered the girl with the 13-year-old daughter of an Al Qaeda operative later convicted in Belgium.

Americans and Europeans will have to work together to handle the costs and challenges of healing, rehabilitating, housing and, if necessary, monitoring the inmates who come to Europe, Garzon said.

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“We have to confront the reality that some bad people will end up walking the streets,” Garzon said. “Like the former rapists, robbers and terrorists whom we have walking the streets once they complete their sentence and are released. We have to take the risks that are necessary in a democratic society.”

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rotella@latimes.com


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