Fate Of Guantanamo's Uighurs Is Still Unclear

Bermuda Prime Minister Ewart Brown i i

Bermuda Prime Minister Ewart Brown (front) gives a news conference in Hamilton on Thursday. Brown came under fire for accepting four Chinese Muslims who had been detained in Guantanamo Bay, with residents and the British government questioning whether the Caribbean island is prepared for such a responsibility. Akil Simmons/The Royal Gazette/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Akil Simmons/The Royal Gazette/AP
Bermuda Prime Minister Ewart Brown

Bermuda Prime Minister Ewart Brown (front) gives a news conference in Hamilton on Thursday. Brown came under fire for accepting four Chinese Muslims who had been detained in Guantanamo Bay, with residents and the British government questioning whether the Caribbean island is prepared for such a responsibility.

Akil Simmons/The Royal Gazette/AP

Two tiny island nations a world apart, Palau in the Pacific and Bermuda in the Atlantic, emerged this week as a partial solution to a problem vexing the Obama administration: What to do with the Guantanamo detainees before closing down the prison?

Four Chinese Muslim men celebrated their release from U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay on Thursday, thanking the government of Bermuda for offering them refuge.

Earlier in the week, it was announced that another group of ethnic Uighurs would be bound for Palau. But the fate of those 13 Uighurs at Guantanamo is far from clear.

A lawyer for some of the Uighur detainees says there are questions remaining about a plan to send the men to the Pacific island nation, and there's still a pending court case that could order their release in the United States.

The administration is reportedly finalizing a deal with Saudi Arabia to accept some of the nearly 100 Yemenis who are among the roughly 230 detainees remaining at Guantanamo.

Bowing to congressional opposition, the Obama administration has reportedly abandoned plans to allow Guantanamo Bay detainees who have been cleared for release to live in the United States, a decision that could complicate efforts to persuade European allies to accept them.

The Uighur men have been held since 2001, when they were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. government eventually determined that they were not enemy combatants and should be released. They have remained at the prison camp while the U.S. sought a third country that would accept them.

The president of Palau, Johnson Toribiong, told NPR's Michele Norris that his government agreed June 4 to a U.S. request to take all 17 Uighurs, but U.S. officials have not yet confirmed the details.

Toribiong said he has heard news reports claiming that the U.S. will provide Palau with $200 million in aid in return for taking the detainees, but he denied that financial aid from the United States had anything to do with the decision.

Sabin Willett, an attorney for some of the Uighurs, says, "There's been a lot of hyperventilation about Palau lately, but the devil is in the details. The government there says it would accept the guys temporarily, and the question is, what happens after the temporary period?"

Bid To Settle Uighurs In The U.S.

Willett was part of a legal team that won a federal court judgment in October of last year, ordering that the men be released immediately into the United States. That judgment was stayed, pending an emergency appeal by the government.

Willett notes that lawyers for the Uighurs have a petition before the court asking that the original judgment be upheld, meaning that the remaining detainees could still wind up in the U.S. In the meantime, Willett asks, "why is America so panic-stricken about her own institutions that small friends like Bermuda have to help us out?"

The United States has been unwilling to repatriate the Uighurs to their native China, because China regards the men as terrorist suspects and might prosecute or even execute them. China protested sharply when five Uighur detainees were released to Albania in 2006, and the Chinese government has worked to dissuade other countries from accepting the remaining Uighur detainees.

Bermuda is a British territory with a high degree of autonomy, but British officials expressed displeasure at the Bermudan government's decision to accept the Uighurs.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman in London told The Associated Press that although Bermuda considered the case to be a matter of "internal immigration," Britain should have been consulted.

Britain was among about 100 countries that reportedly declined to accept the Uighur detainees. Unlike Britain, tiny Palau has little reason to fear China's anger. Palau does not have diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. It is one of only 23 nations that recognize Taiwan as the sole legitimate government for the whole of China.

Some In Palau Uneasy

But the prospect of accepting Guantanamo detainees has raised fears in Palau as well. The AP quotes islanders as saying they are concerned that the detainees might be dangerous and worried that their presence could harm the island's vital tourism industry.

Sarah Mendelson, a human rights expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., says she is disappointed in what appears to be a piecemeal approach to the releases.

"It is important when you consider the fate of 17 individuals who've been held for years without charge — people even the Bush administration wanted to release," Mendelson says.

"But the fact that they're sending the — quote — 'easy ones' to Bermuda and maybe Palau suggests that the U.S. is not going to be accepting any [of the other Guantanamo inmates]."

Mendelson led a study last year recommending that Guantanamo be closed and that the fate of detainees there be decided by a commission. At that point, she says, U.S. allies wanted to help by taking detainees, "but that was contingent on the idea that the U.S. would also take some."

Mendelson faults the reaction in Congress. Republicans accused the Obama administration of bringing "terrorists" to the U.S., and Democrats voted to deny funding for the closure.

"We got into this situation because Congress whipped up a lot of fear about this," she says, "and it seems the Obama administration didn't have a legislative strategy."

U.S. officials sent two other detainees, an Iraqi and a Chadian, to their home countries this week.

Released Uighurs Face A Mixed Future

Meanwhile, Willett says he is thrilled that four of the Uighurs have found refuge. Speaking by telephone from Bermuda, Willett said the move will allow the men to start new lives.

"Three of these men are bachelors," he said. "They'll have a chance to meet people and start over." Willett says a fourth detainee, Hozaifa Parhat, told his wife to divorce him when he believed he would never get out of Guantanamo. The divorce took place, says Willett, but now Parhat "desperately misses his 10-year-old son."

Willett says the men in Bermuda should be better off than two of his clients who were among the five sent to Albania in 2006. One of those men was unhappy there and eventually found asylum in Sweden, while the other remains in Albania. "They really miss their families who are stuck in China," Willett says.

Soon after their arrival in Bermuda, Willett says the Uighurs celebrated with a call to their friends in Albania. The attorney says he is hoping that the publicity of the release will show the American public that the detainees are normal human beings.

What we're hoping is that people will meet these guys and put a face on them, and that we as a nation will start to feel somewhat embarrassed for being afraid of them."

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