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Town: We will take detainees

Retired college teacher Ruth Hooke, 82, a member of the Amherst, Mass., Town Meeting championed a resolution that passed on a voice vote to resettle cleared Guantanamo detainees. She is shown here Nov. 6, 2009 posing on front of the Town Hall off the common, just days after the college town became the first in the nation to rebuke Congress' ban on bringing detainees from the base in Cuba to the United States for any other purpose but trial.
Retired college teacher Ruth Hooke, 82, a member of the Amherst, Mass., Town Meeting championed a resolution that passed on a voice vote to resettle cleared Guantanamo detainees. She is shown here Nov. 6, 2009 posing on front of the Town Hall off the common, just days after the college town became the first in the nation to rebuke Congress' ban on bringing detainees from the base in Cuba to the United States for any other purpose but trial. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

AMHERST, Mass. -- At a time when many Americans are recoiling at the idea of bringing Guantánamo detainees to the United States, this New England college town has sent a mutinous message: We'll take two.

The Town Meeting of Amherst, a 240-member body that traditionally tackles zoning and budgets, voted Nov. 4 to offer asylum to Guantánamo captives cleared of wrongdoing but who cannot go home.

That makes Amherst the first -- and so far only -- U.S. municipality to officially offer to take in former Guantánamo detainees, if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Congress and the Obama administration can't keep them out.

On the one hand, it's a symbolic slap at Washington from an independent-minded corner of the country that has long weighed in on foreign policy. Amherst's Town Meeting has condemned human rights abuses in Darfur, apartheid in South Africa and in a 2006 voted to impeach President George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Ruth Hooke, an 82-year-old retired college teacher, collected 100 signatures at the farmer's market to put the Guantánamo question to the town. She cast it as an issue of justice and responsibility.

"We have jailed all these people in Guantánamo all these years, in our name, in my name. Our government has done this, " she said. The measure passed on a voice vote in two parts -- one asking Congress to lift a ban on allowing Guantánamo detainees to go free on U.S. soil, the other agreeing to welcome detainees who have been cleared of wrongdoing.

But the Supreme Court could make their invitation more than symbolic. The justices have agreed to consider whether a federal court has the power to release Guantánamo innocents into American communities.

At issue was U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina's order in October to bring some Muslim captives from China, held at Guantánamo, to his Washington, D.C. court. At the time, a Lutheran group near D.C. and religious leaders in Tallahassee were offering to sponsor the men, members of China's Uighurs minority who fear religious persecution in their homeland.

The Bush administration balked and, while the Obama White House was considering it, Congress forbade the Pentagon from spending a cent on the transfer of Guantánamo captives to the United States for anything but federal trial.

So far, Amherst's offer has gotten little attention in Washington. Even if it raises some key questions, according to the office of Rep. John Olver, D-Mass., a former University of Massachusetts electrochemistry professor who represents the town.

Such as: Could the U.S. Supreme Court trump a congressional ban and rule that a federal judge has the power to free a detainee into the United States? Could private citizens fund a Cuban captive's flight to freedom, and so circumvent Congress' ban on federal funding of a detainee release into the United States?

"We haven't heard from anyone in the administration on this, " said spokeswoman Sara Merriam, adding that Amherst's role reflected "New England at its finest. Our democracy at work."

How widespread the movement is likely to become is unclear.

Nancy Talanian, a resident of nearby Whatley, Mass., who runs a website called "No More Guantánamos, " is hoping other towns can be persuaded to take similar stands.

Meantime, some Illinois Democrats are studying the financial benefits of letting the federal government imprison Guantánamo detainees in a state facility.

"If the president, Senate and Congress with all their experts and resources can't figure this thing out, I don't know how we can be much help, " said Stephanie O'Keeffe, chairwoman of Amherst's five-member town council, or Select Board.

She warned the presence of former detainees might discourage parents from sending their children to Amherst College or the University of Massachusetts, whose flagship campus is in Amherst.

Moreover, some community members have wondered about the wisdom of freeing even innocents after so many years in military custody. "They might have been innocent when they were detained but couldn't they have become angry and dangerous from being there?" she said, paraphrasing some constituents' concerns.

That worries even those who supported the measure.

"I think there's a critical issue of how we provide a safe haven for people who may be angry. I think we need a strong core of support -- psychological, emotional, cultural, " said Pat Fiero, a peace activist who supports resettlement.

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