CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia is considering a U.S. request to re-settle inmates from the Guantanamo Bay military prison camp, but is unlikely to take any detainees, Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard said on Friday.
Gillard said Australia had been approached along with Britain to accept inmates to help U.S. President-elect Barack Obama meet a promise to close the camp in a U.S. enclave on Cuba.
About 255 men are still held at Guantanamo, including 60 the United States has cleared for release but cannot repatriate for fear they will be tortured or persecuted in their home countries.
The prison has come to symbolize aggressive interrogation practices that opened the United States up to allegations of torture.
The U.S. State Department last week asked around 100 countries for help clearing the camp of detainees over a two-year period, the Australian newspaper reported.
“Australia, along with a number of other friends and allies of the United States, has been approached to consider resettling detainees from Guantanamo Bay,” Gillard said in a statement.
“This is a request from the Bush administration, and follows President Bush’s statement that he would like to see Guantanamo closed. This is not a request from President Elect Obama.”
Gillard said Australia was first approached by the Bush administration in early 2008 to resettle a small group of detainees from Guantanamo.
“After appropriate consideration, Australia declined to allow resettlement of that small group in Australia,” she said.
The second request came in early December 2008.
“Notwithstanding that it is unlikely Australia would accept these detainees, given the fact that the Bush administration has formally approached Australia with this request, the request demands proper consideration,” Gillard said.
Australia, a close U.S. ally, was an original member of the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003 and helped oust the Taliban from control of Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 airliner attacks in the United States.
An Australian man, former kangaroo skinner David Hicks, was the first Guantanamo inmate convicted of supporting terrorism, and returned home from the prison in 2007 after pleading guilty. Strict Australian police controls on Hicks were recently dropped.
Another Australian, Mamdouh Habib, was released from Guantanamo without charge in 2005.
Conservative opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd should immediately rule out support for the plan. Rudd is currently on Christmas holiday.
Involvement in a Guantanamo re-settlement could threaten the government’s record popularity, as surveys show security consistently ranks among the top concerns of Australians.
Keith Suter, a foreign affairs and politics expert at Macquarie University in Sydney, said former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had effectively painted all Guantanamo inmates as extremists before resigning in 2006.
But most, Suter said, had faced no proper charges under the U.S. military court system used at Guantanamo and would likely have to be considered by Australia as ordinary refugees.
“They’d be granted refugee status and they’d be settled into the community, and hopefully no fuss would be made about it,” he said.
Additional reporting by Michael Perry, Editing by Dean Yates