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Gitmo Detainees Inch Closer to United States

The political wrangling over where Guantanamo Bay detainees are going to go is only getting more complicated — and stranger — as the president’s deadline for closing the U.S. detention facility by late January draws closer.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted 79 to 19 to allow the Guantanamo detainees to come to the United States — but only to stand trial. The bill still doesn’t allow the prisoners to be housed in U.S. prisons, though, so it’s unclear how the logistics of that situation will work. But it does mean Congress has just cleared the way for the president to try the 9/11 detainees — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four alleged co-conspirators — in a federal court in the New York or Washington, D.C., areas. As I reported yesterday, that’s becoming increasingly likely.

Signaling that not everyone in the country is so squeamish about actually living near terror suspects, though, Amherst, Mass. has decided to jump into the fray. The leafy college town of 30,000 may offer to host two of the men who’ve been imprisoned for years at Guantanamo without charge or trial. Only one has officially been cleared for release, though.

“We like to set our own foreign policy,’’ Ruth Hooke, a retired University of Massachusetts professor, a member of Pioneer Valley No More Guantanamos, told The Boston Globe this week.

To that end, Amherst would take Ahmed Belbacha, originally from Algeria, and Ravil Mingazov, a former Russian ballet dancer arrested in Pakistan. Both fear persecution if returned to their home countries. But while Belbacha was cleared for release two years ago by the Bush administration, Mingazov has never actually been deemed by the government not to pose any threat. His petition for habeas corpus is still pending in a D.C. federal court.

Hooke and some of her fellow Amherst Select Board members aren’t worried about that. The No More Guantanamos Group has been pressing for the release of at least five men, including Mingazov, since May. If Mingazov can be released to Amherst, the group says it will arrange for him to receive counseling.

On Monday night, by a vote of 2 to 1, the Amherst Select Board approved Hooke’s petition to have the town ask Congress to rescind its ban on allowing Guantanamo detainees to settle in the United States, and to offer to take these two particular prisoners. The matter will be addressed again at a special town meeting on Nov. 2.

Coincidentally, the Supreme Court earlier this week agreed to hear a case that asks a related question: who gets to decide whether detainees are released into the United States? The appeal to the high court comes from of a group of 17 Chinese Muslim Uighurs who’ve been denied entry into the United States, although they’ve all been cleared for release and were determined not to be dangerous. The Obama administration, and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., have said that only the president and Department of Homeland Security have that power.

This post has been updated for clarity.

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