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Australia Says It's Considering Guantanamo Prison Intake

About 255 prisoners are being held at Guantanamo Bay.
CANBERRA (Reuters) -- Australia is considering a U.S. request to resettle inmates from the Guantanamo Bay military prison camp, but would apply strict security screening before accepting an unspecified number.

Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the government 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.

"For anyone to be accepted they would have to meet Australia's strict legal requirement and go through normal rigorous assessment processes," Gillard said in a statement.

Gillard's office said it had not been decided who would be considered for intake and under what conditions.

About 255 men are still held at the Guantanamo naval base, 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, 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, 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.

Opposition Party Unhappy

Australian media said the government would accept no "wholesale intake" from Guantanamo and conservative opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd should immediately rule out support for the plan. Rudd is currently on Christmas holiday.

"What [Rudd] has agreed to, with the Americans, is to accept Guantanamo Bay inmates for resettlement in Australia, in our community, as migrants, and that is completely and utterly unacceptable to the Australian people," Turnbull told local radio.

Involvement in a Guantanamo resettlement 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.