(Brussels) - A coalition of human rights organizations today called on EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels next week to help close the Guantanamo Bay prison by offering humanitarian protection to detainees who risk torture or persecution at home.

The letter to the ministers attending the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) meeting on January 26, 2009 is signed by Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch, La Federation internationale des ligues droits de l'Homme (FIDH), and Reprieve.

On January 20, by order of US President Barack Obama, prosecutors at Guantanamo Bay sought a 120-day suspension of military commissions proceedings in order to allow the new US administration time to review the military commissions process and pending cases. The rights groups welcomed this development as a positive step and expressed the hope that it heralded quick movement toward the closure of Guantanamo. But the groups emphasized that the Obama administration will need the help of European governments to implement any plan to close the prison camp.    

Of the 250 detainees still at Guantanamo nearly seven years after the prison camp opened, approximately 60 men could face torture or persecution if returned to their home countries, and at least one is stateless. The US may decide to admit some of the men to the US mainland, but the remaining detainees need humanitarian protection in other countries where they will be safe.

"Amnesty International hopes that as a result of this meeting EU member states will send a common message on their willingness to help close Guantanamo, and - most important - follow it up with concrete action to find homes for detainees who cannot be returned to their countries of origin," said Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty International's EU office.

Emi MacLean, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said: "There is a real opportunity for the new US administration to turn a new leaf, close down Guantanamo Bay and end, once and for all, the appalling era of illegal detentions and human rights abuses. This can only be achieved if EU countries step up and offer protection for those men who still languish in Guantanamo simply because there is nowhere safe for them to return."

Julia Hall, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said: "Offering safe haven to some of the most vulnerable detainees would be a significant humanitarian gesture. Europe could help the new administration shut down the unlawful detention facility, a major goal, and be a force in re-establishing the rule of law."

Souhayr Belhassen, president of La Federation internationale des ligues droits de l'Homme (FIDH), said: "Every day adds a toll to the already dire humanitarian nature of the situation. No time should be wasted in releasing these individuals."

Cori Crider, staff attorney with Reprieve, said: "Many of the detainees are marked by seven years of illegal detention and now cannot go home. A ‘homecoming' for them stands to be a tragedy, as it has already been for some of Reprieve's clients. The assistance of European governments can prevent this from happening and we hope that Europe will reach out to these men."