/ 27 May 2009

Tunisia to take in Guantánamo nationals

Tunisia’s justice minister said on Tuesday the North African country is ready to take back for legal examination all its nationals held at the Guantánamo Bay detention centre.

The call by Bechir Tekkari concerns 10 Tunisians still held in Cuba by the United States as President Barack Obama moves to close the ”war on terror” prison camp by January despite domestic political opposition.

”We are entirely happy to welcome them and examine their penal situation according to legal procedures and under the principle of the presumption of innocence,” said the minister, also responsible for human rights issues.

”If the US is talking to European countries about transferring former Tunisian detainees, that’s their business, but Tunisia is ready to accept all its nationals,” he added of moves by Washington to avoid returning released detainees to their countries of origin in cases where US officials fear they may not receive a fair hearing.

The United States has asked Italy to take two Tunisian former detainees facing Italian charges dating from 2007 of links to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, now known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The issue was due to be discussed at a meeting this Friday in Rome between Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and US Attorney General Eric Holder.

France last week took a cleared Algerian ex-Guantánamo inmate in and is setting him up in a new life, while Belgium has offered to accept former prisoners and German authorities are considering the cases of a group of Chinese ethnic Uighurs.

Tunisia in 2007 jailed two former inmates for seven and three years respectively on charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation and having fought for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Tekkari said on Tuesday that both convicts had seen their sentences since reduced on appeal, adding that ”their cases lend the lie to scurrilous allegations given as a pretext for [US] discussions with European countries about taking in Tunisian detainees”.

However, the minister also said that a female Tunisian student had been sentenced to six years imprisonment for links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — after her husband was jailed for eight-and-a-half years in a case which centred on who benefited from fundraising efforts she said were for Gaza victims.

Obama gained support for closing Guantánamo from current and former military leaders on Monday despite opposition in Congress to moving ”war on terror” suspects to the US. — Sapa-AFP