Some Guantanamo Detainees Headed For Palau The tiny island nation of Palau (pop. 21,000) has agreed to take in Uighur detainees from Guantanamo. The Uighurs, Muslim separatists from western China, have been judged not to be enemy combatants — i.e., they are not a threat to the United States — but Congress won't allow them to settle here and most other countries won't accept them for fear of angering China, which regards them as terrorists and demands their repatriation for trial. NPR's Michael Sullivan talks with NPR's Scott Simon about what awaits the Uighurs in Palau.
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Some Guantanamo Detainees Headed For Palau

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Some Guantanamo Detainees Headed For Palau

Some Guantanamo Detainees Headed For Palau

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More now on that group of Chinese Uighurs who had been held in Guantanamo and who are to be resettled in the Pacific island nation of Palau, a former U.S. territory about 500 miles east of the Philippines. They have not been found guilty of any crime and the U.S. Justice Department says they are no threat to national security, so they will be free whenever they finally get to Palau. But they may not be warmly welcomed.

NPR's Michael Sullivan joins us from Palau. Morning, Michael.


SIMON: And remind us, please, of the status of these former detainees. Who are they? Why are they being - why were they being held?

SULLIVAN: They are members of the Chinese Uighur minority and they were captured either in Afghanistan or in Pakistan after 9/11 and were accused initially of being trained at al-Qaeda training camps inside Afghanistan. They were since found not guilty of that and the U.S. said, okay, it's time to release them. And there was a great deal of protest in the U.S. from many lawmakers, I take it, who said, well, okay, let's release them but not in our country, thank you very much. And I think that's the reaction here in Palau as well. Some people are okay with it. People here are very friendly.

They say if these people are not terrorists, they should be welcomed, allowed to live normal lives. But a great many other people I spoke today didn't like the idea at all. They viewed the Uighurs with suspicion. They say why do we have to take them. They express concern they might harm the country's image, scare off foreign tourists. And tourist arrivals are already down, Scott, because of the recession and the swine flu scare. And a few also brought up the point that they live not very far away from a place where Muslims extremists have been active for many years, in the Southern Philippines. And some said we don't want that kind of problem here that they're having there, only about 500 miles away, implying of course that they believe these men are terrorists and likely be up to no good if they do come.

SIMON: China regards them as terrorists. Forgive my naivety, but would it be fairly easy for the Chinese to send people to try and, if you please, re-detain them?

SULLIVAN: I don't think it would be that difficult for them to do that. I think politically that would be very unwise, and I think there would be definitely ramifications, there would be some sort of reprisal for that, some diplomatic reprisal at the very least.

Palau is a very, very long way away from the U.S., yes, and I think distance is a problem. But I also think that's not something the Chinese will probably do.

SIMON: Michael, how did they wind up in Palau?

SULLIVAN: Palau used to be a U.S. territory, until 1994, when they got their independence. The president of Palau says that the two countries still enjoy a very close relationship. And the president said earlier this week that it was a humanitarian gesture to take these Uighurs, that these people have been found not guilty. And he cited the unique and special relationship with the U.S. and said that this was the right thing to do.

SIMON: Forgive me for putting it this way, but the U.S. made it worth their while too?

SULLIVAN: There's been a lot of talk about $200 million in aid being offered by the U.S. But the president and the U.S. government are adamant there's no quid pro quo here, that the U.S. has long supported Palau and will continue doing so. But Palau's compact with the U.S. is due to be re-negotiated this year, and of course many people are saying that that's a factor.

In fact, there's was an editorial, a scathing editorial yesterday in The Island Times that suggested if the government was getting about $12 million per Uighur, it might as well take like 100 of the Guantanamo inmates and pocket a billion dollars. And you know, of course that's satire, but it shows that a lot of people here are unhappy with the government's decision. And I think that the government may have miscalculated by not consulting the people a little bit more.

Let me say one more thing, Scott.

SIMON: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: I mean this isn't the first time that Palau has been asked to contribute to the war on terror. On Tuesday, this coming Tuesday, there's a state funeral being planned for a soldier from Palau serving in the U.S. military who died earlier this month in Afghanistan. And there are several more serving in Iraq as well.

SIMON: NPR's Michael Sullivan in Palau, thanks so much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Scott.

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