SYDNEY, Jan 2 – Australia is "unlikely" to agree to resettle prisoners released from the Guantanamo Bay detention centre despite a request by President George W. Bush, the government said Friday.
Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard made the statement shortly after the opposition condemned an earlier announcement that the government would consider accepting freed "war on terror" detainees.
"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," she said.
Gillard, who is acting prime minister while Kevin Rudd is on holiday, said Australia was one of several countries approached on the issue by the United States.
"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 (Barack) Obama."
The Bush administration had first approached Australia early last year with a request to resettle a small group of detainees from Guantanamo but Canberra refused, she said.
Washington had made another approach in early December 2008 and "Australia, as an ally of the United States, is examining this second request," Gillard said, before noting that it was unlikely to succeed.
The government had previously said it would consider resettling freed detainees but only after rigorous assessment on a case-by-case basis.
The leader of the opposition Liberal-National coalition, Malcolm Turnbull, condemned that stance Friday as "completely and utterly unacceptable to the Australian people."
Obama has promised to close the Guantanamo Bay prison after taking office this month, raising the question of what to do with the remaining 250 inmates held without charge or trial.
Some of the alleged "enemy combatants" captured since 2001 by US and allied forces around the world during the so-called "war on terror" are no longer considered a threat by US authorities.
But if sent to their home countries some could be arrested and face torture or lengthy incarceration and need to be resettled elsewhere.
Britain had also said it would consider US resettlement requests on a case-by-case basis only, but has now decided to support moves to re-house remaining detainees, The Times newspaper said Thursday, citing government sources.
The European Union is divided over the issue, with the Netherlands ruling out accepting any newly freed inmates, Portugal and Germany signalling they might do so, Poland not keen and France calling for a common European position.
Two Australians formerly held at Guantanamo have already been resettled in their home country.
So-called "Australian Taliban" David Hicks was held for five years before being convicted in 2007 of providing material support for terrorism and being returned to Australia to serve nine months in jail.
Another Australian, Mamdouh Habib, was released from Guantanamo Bay without charge in 2005.