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Italy lifts hope of Europe shift on Guantanamo

June 17, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published on FT on June 17 2009

Three Tunisian detainees to be accepted by Italy under the US plan to close its Guantanamo prison may be allowed to travel freely across Europe, Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, said on Tuesday.

Italy’s decision, conveyed by Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, to Barack Obama in the White House on Monday, has already led to dissent within Italy’s centre-right government with the hardline interior minister, Roberto Maroni, expressing his opposition.Mr Berlusconi’s offer was the first from an EU government following an agreement reached between the EU and the US earlier in the day on accepting detainees. The EU said it was up to each government to decide.

An Italian official told the Financial Times that Italy was ready, on a case by case basis, to accept more than the three Tunisians from Guantanamo which Mr Obama wants to close down by next January.

Mr Frattini told reporters that the three Tunisians would be free to circulate freely in countries signed up to the no-borders Schengen pact, provided they had no legal cases pending against them in Italy
and on the condition that other governments did not object.

The Schengen agreement covers the 27 EU member states, excluding
Ireland, the UK, Romania and Bulgaria. Three non-EU countries – Norway,
Iceland and Switzerland – have joined the passport-free travel zone.

Italian officials said they did not know when the Tunisians would be
transferred. Mr Frattini said a US court would first have to give a
“clear for release” judgment on the three men.

On his first visit to the White House under the new administration, Mr
Berlusconi was clearly pleased to set relations along the same positive
path that Italy enjoyed with George W. Bush. Italy also responded to Mr
Obama’s request by offering several hundred additional military
personnel and police instructors for Afghanistan.

“This is not just talk. Italy has agreed to accept three specific
detainees,” Mr Obama said, calling Mr Berlusconi “a great friend of the
United States”.

Italian analysts said Mr Berlusconi had given Mr Obama useful
ammunition to lobby Congress which is resisting his efforts to transfer
some prisoners from the US-controlled enclave in Cuba to prisons on the
US mainland.

Mr Maroni, a member of Italy’s right-wing, anti-immigration Northern
League, said he was personally opposed to Mr Berlusconi’s offer. He
told Radio 24 that Schengen countries should only take detainees who
would remain in prison. Mr Frattini said it was for the prime minister
to decide.

Albania, a close US ally, was the first European government to take
Guantanamo detainees, receiving five Muslim Uighurs who could not
return to their native China for fear of persecution. Four more Chinese
Uighurs were accepted by Bermuda, and 13 more are expected to settle on
the Pacific island of Palau.

About 230 inmates still remain in Guantanamo, a US-controlled enclave
in Cuba where the former Bush administration set up the prison in 2002.

Belgium, the UK, France, Ireland, Portugal and Spain have also
expressed willingness to accept some Guantanamo detainees.

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