White House puzzled by Canada’s abrupt refusal to accept detainees from Guantanamo prison
Toronto Star…GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA–An apparent snub by the Canadian government has dismayed officials on the Obama administration’s task force who are working to resettle dozens of detainees here and close the prison, a high-ranking administration source told the Star.
Various foreign governments have offered refuge to prisoners that the Pentagon has cleared for release, including France, Portugal, Ireland and smaller nations such as Bermuda and Palau. Dozens more are now negotiating with the task force, answering U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for help.
But the official, who has intimate knowledge of the negotiations and who spoke to the Star on the condition he not be named, said Canada abruptly stopped talks earlier this year. He said the task force was surprised to learn of Canada’s decision through a press release.
“I just found it puzzling,” there were no phone calls or diplomatic meetings, the official said. “A public rejection was odd.”
Canada’s position is in contrast to other countries eager to curry favour with the U.S. administration by helping Obama’s apparent Sisyphean task to close Gitmo. Various foreign governments have stated that accepting detainees is “the right thing to do” after years of criticism about the offshore prison.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s press secretary told the Star that Canada’s position under both the Bush and Obama administrations had been consistent.
“We’re not interested in bringing detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Canada,” said Dimitri Soudas. “In the case of other detainees who are not Canadian citizens and don’t have a connection to Canada, there is no justification for us to bring any such individuals to Canada.”
Toronto-born Omar Khadr, accused by the Pentagon of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in 2002, is the only Western detainee left in Guantanamo. He appeared at a hearing here Wednesday alongside two new Washington attorneys.
U.S. prosecutor John Murphy said Khadr’s fate – whether he will be tried by a military commission or before a Washington civilian court – would be announced within the next six weeks.
Canada’s refusal to advocate on Khadr’s behalf was condemned by the Federal Court of Appeals, which ordered Harper to intervene. The Supreme Court will hear the government’s appeal of that ruling next month.
The Khadr case undoubtedly complicates negotiations to resettle other Guantanamo detainees, the administration source conceded. But since Khadr faces terrorism-related charges, and the Pentagon has cleared other detainees for release, the official argued that the cases should be viewed as distinct.
“We’re still hoping Canada will help,” he said. “We can’t do this alone.”
That was the message Obama’s Guantanamo czar tasked with closing the prison brought to Ottawa this spring. There had been earlier negotiations under the Bush administration about Canada accepting Uighur detainees – Chinese citizens from a Muslim minority group facing persecution in China. But those talks broke down reportedly over concerns of Chinese government reprimands.
The official told the Star the Canadian government was keen to keep quiet the meeting that U.S. Special Envoy Daniel Fried had this spring. Various options for the detainees were discussed and Obama’s task force was told that the meeting had been “promising.”
But only a week later, Harper’s office told journalists that Canada would not accept any Guantanamo detainees – surprising the task force, the official said.
Advocacy groups have argued that Canada’s position on Guantanamo has stained its international reputation as a leader in the field of human rights.
“The Obama administration is trying to do the right thing, the very thing Canada was asking the United States to do for so long. It’s pathetic that Canada now won’t lift a finger to help, especially since so many other NATO allies are doing their part,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch.
Algerian Djamel Ameziane is one detainee who has been pushing for resettlement in Montreal, where he once lived and has relatives who are Canadian citizens. His lawyers say he would be a logical candidate.
“He lived and worked there for years, is fluent in French, has family there who are citizens, and has church-backed sponsorship for his resettlement,” said his New York-based lawyer Pardiss Kebriaei. “His country ties, support system, and capacity to integrate couldn’t be stronger.”
Only 20 of the remaining 223 detainees have left this prison under the Obama administration, and only half of those men have been settled in third countries (others returned to their countries of birth). The Pentagon plans to prosecute as many as 80 terrorism suspects in U.S. military or criminal courts and return others to their homelands, a group that could include the nearly 100 Yemeni detainees.
Like adoptive parents, foreign country delegates are coming here almost weekly to meet and interview detainees, who are not considered a risk but cannot be sent home due to fears that they will be tortured. It has created a bizarre lottery system where both detainees and foreign delegates are vying for the best match.
“The detainees get a little bit hyper because they want to control where they go,” said the prison camp’s deputy commander, Gen. Rafael O’Ferrall, in an interview last week.
Most sought after are European destinations due to their proximity to the Middle East and Asia and the likelihood of diaspora groups from their native homeland.
O’Ferrall said the uncertainty over the slow pace of resettlements has led to various uprisings inside the prison camps. Guards are bracing for protests if Obama’s Jan. 22 deadline to close the detention facility is not met – which is appearing increasingly likely.
Foreign governments are also jostling for position – hoping to be offered the most amenable detainees. While the Uighur detainees were seen as the lowest threat to security, few countries wanted to incur the wrath of China who has demanded their return.
Four Uighur detainees were sent to Bermuda this summer and another group is expected to soon depart for Palau, although the South Pacific island is seen only as a temporary home for the men.
But hanging over any negotiations is the fact that there is one country where it appears detainees will not settle – or at least not unless they’re behind bars.
U.S. House and Senate leaders agreed this week that detainees could be tried on U.S. soil, but refused to allow the transfer of those prisoners not considered a risk.
So why should other countries help when the U.S. administration won’t help clean up its own mess?
Although careful not to criticize Congress’s position, that undoubtedly makes the task more difficult, the administration source conceded.
The official would not speculate whether Canada’s apparent snub would hinder relations between the two countries.
But Gar Pardy, the former head of Canada’s consular programs, said he would be surprised if it didn’t create a chill.
“The administration is saying, ‘Look, we’ve inherited all this stuff. We’re looking for a solution here and we would expect getting some help from our friends and we’re not getting any.’ “