WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's renewed push to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorism suspects has given a glimmer of hope to foreign governments that he will fulfill that promise and triggered diplomatic maneuvering from U.S. allies eager to bring home long-held detainees.
Kuwait has hired lobbyists to help bring its two remaining prisoners home. British Prime Minister David Cameron personally pressed Obama at the Group of 8 summit last month to release the United Kingdom's final detainee. And the fate of Afghans being held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba has been at the forefront of peace talks between the U.S., Taliban and Afghanistan.
The indefinite captivity has created tension with some important U.S. allies, particularly in the Arab world, the native home of many of the 166 remaining detainees. Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are among those countries that have pressed the U.S. to turn over their nationals.
The Obama administration is in the midst of determining which detainees present the lowest risk for terrorist activity if released — considering both their personal histories and security in the countries to which they will be returned.
More than 100 of the detainees have participated in a hunger strike to protest their indefinite confinement, with several dozen having been force fed through a nasal tube to keep them from starving, although the military reported Friday that most have resumed eating.
David Cynamon, an American lawyer based in the Middle East who is working with Kuwait on getting their detainees back, said in recent months they are finally having meaningful negotiations after years of "radio silence."
"You would think with a close ally like Kuwait they would at least get a hearing, but they kept getting the brush off," Cynamon said.
Cynamon said that's even though the Kuwaiti government built a rehabilitation center for former Guantanamo detainees at the request of Bush administration officials, after another former detainee carried out a suicide bombing that killed at least seven people in Iraq. The center, a section of the Kuwaiti central prison designed for medical and psychological treatment and religious counseling to ensure the detainees will peacefully reintegrate into society, has not been used.
Kuwait hired The Potomac Square Group, a Washington lobbying firm, to help spur talks for the transfer of Faiz al-Kandari and Fawzi al-Odah.
"They want all their citizens back if the United States is not going to charge and try them," Cynamon said. "Now that the negotiations have started, I do think they are meaningful. But for a two-year period there was nobody who was answering the door."
Administration officials say they are working aggressively to certify detainees for release under Obama's directive in May to transfer as many detainees as possible to other countries. The president, in announcing new steps to get the detainees out, said diplomatic concerns are chief among the reasons to close the facility.
"Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law," Obama said during a speech at National Defense University. "Our allies won't cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo."
Congress has fought Obama from achieving the goal he announced upon taking office in 2009 of closing Guantanamo. Lawmakers have blocked detainees from coming into the United States, but the Pentagon can issue a national security waiver to transfer the detainees overseas.
So far the Obama administration hasn't used that power to move out any detainee, even though 86 have been cleared for transfer. But administration officials say they expect to begin transfers soon.
Last month, Obama appointed lawyer Clifford Sloan to reopen the State Department's Office of Guantanamo Closure. Obama said the sole responsibility for Sloan and a yet-to-be named envoy at the Pentagon will be to transfer detainees overseas, and Sloan's team is busy finding its first candidates.
A possible choice may be detainees from Afghanistan, where the United States is drawing down its combat presence by the end of next year. This spring, the United States gave control of its prison with more than 3,000 detainees near the Bagram base in Afghanistan to the Karzai government as part of its shift of control of the country's security to the Afghans.
"There is no excuse for Afghan detainees to continue to be held at Guantanamo, when the United States is transferring custody of Afghan citizens held in Afghanistan itself," said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. "President Karzai is demanding to get his citizens back, and he is right to be making this demand. Every country always gets its citizens back at the end of war."
Karzai has been pushing for the return of all 17 Afghan detainees at Guantanamo as a matter of sovereignty. And the Taliban made the release of five of its members at Guantanamo Bay their opening offer last month in peace talks, suggesting an exchange for U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier from Hailey, Idaho, they've held since 2009.
A U.S. official confirmed that talks of a prisoner exchange had taken place, including timelines for the release, as well as a promise from the Taliban to show fresh and verifiable proof of Bergdahl's health. But any progress toward a possible deal could be in jeopardy now that the Taliban has shut down, at least temporarily, its new office to facilitate peace talks with the U.S. and Karzai's government.
The Taliban want their five detainees released to Doha, Qatar, where senior Taliban leaders are living in exile. The U.S. has been reluctant to return detainees to Afghanistan because several have returned to the battlefield.
In London, Cameron said he discussed the fate of his country's last remaining detainee, Shaker Aamer, in a meeting with Obama last month.
"Clearly, President Obama wants to make progress on this issue and we should help him in every way that we can with respect to this individual," Cameron said.
Aamer is a Saudi native who moved to Britain in 1996 and married a British woman, who was pregnant with his fourth child when he was arrested in Afghanistan in 2001. He was accused of being a Taliban fighter, but he was never charged and insists he was in Afghanistan to do charity work. He has been cleared for transfer and has participated in the hunger strike.
More than half of the current detainees are from Yemen, which has new hope to get its detainees out since Obama has lifted a three-year ban on transfers to Yemen. Obama imposed the ban after a would-be bomber attempted to blow up a U.S.-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009 on instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen.
Obama's decision is not without risk — detainees who have been released to Yemen in the past have joined terrorist fighters in the Arab nation. But Yemen has agreed to open a rehabilitation center to help reintegrate detainees, but reportedly is asking the U.S. and other Arab countries to help fund the $20 million cost — a fraction of the $150 million annual cost Obama cited of keeping detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.
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